School editors' wings clipped. High court rules student newspapers can be censored
Boston — Press rights of high school students received a sharp setback from the United States Supreme Court Wednesday. But it is unclear whether broader constitutional guarantees of students to free expression have been compromised by the court. It is also still undecided whether these speech restrictions may be applied to the college press.
The justices, by a 5-to-3 vote, ruled that a Hazelwood, Mo., high school principal had the right to pre-censor, and order deleted, certain articles from a student-produced newspaper. The stories dealt with the sensitive subjects of divorce and teen pregnancy.
Writing for the court's majority, Associate Justice Byron White said: ``A school need not tolerate student speech that is inconsistent with its basic educational mission even though the government could not censor similar speech outside the school.''
Justice White was joined in this opinion by Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Associate Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, and John Paul Stevens.
Associate Justices Harry Blackmun, William Brennan, and Thurgood Marshall dissented. Justice Brennan commented: ``The young men and women of Hazelwood East expected a civics lesson, but not the one the court teaches them today.''
Legal experts, constitutional scholars, and educators are divided on the potential effect of this ruling. Bernard James, a law professor at Pepperdine University in California who closely follows student press issues, says he doesn't expect students' free-speech rights will be greatly affected. ``But school officials now have a pretty clear line [based on Wednesday's ruling] as to how to treat creative activities for First Amendment purposes.''
Professor James stresses that educators must balance their administrative responsibilities with the need to encourage independent student thinking. He adds that if the court voted no restrictions on school papers, many principals would just not offer curriculum courses in journalism for fear of lawsuits or other community reprisals.
``First Amendment rights of students are substantive. They must be recognized,'' he stresses. ``But activities counterproductive to the school must be regulated.''
Some media experts, who generally supported the Hazelwood students who brought suit against their school district for censoring their work, sharply criticize the court's finding.
First Amendment defense lawyer Floyd Abrams says that it ``sends a [negative] message about the nature of our society to students and all others who wish to have their say.''
Richard Schmidt Jr., general counsel to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, says it means that ``journalism students can be taught about the First Amendment, but they won't be able to exercise it until they get out of school.''
Jane Kirtley, executive director of the Reporters' Committee for Freedom of the Press, says that most high school papers will be affected because they operate in a setting that is directly tied to the school curriculum. ``What are we telling the journalists of the future?'' she asks. ``Are we saying that [free speech] depends on their status?''
Mark Goodman, who heads the Student Press Law Center in Washington, D.C., says he hopes most school officials will choose not to censor student papers, despite the Supreme Court ruling. ``We must teach that good journalism requires press freedom,'' he says.
Louis Gappmeyer, a high school principal in Bozeman, Mont., says that there is no prior restraint, or even review, of the student paper in his school. He adds, however, that the paper is produced in a ``learning setting'' in which potential staff members are taught responsible journalism.
In overturning a lower court ruling that the student paper was a ``public forum'' and thus could not be subject to administrative restraint, the court's majority said it was, instead, ``a supervised learning experience'' and thus under the control of school officials.
Justice White said that yesterday's ruling was not in conflict with previous Supreme Court decisions that have reinforced students' free-speech rights.