Education and the school press
THE Supreme Court has given public school officials broad power to censor school newspapers. Administrators are empowered by the state to set the curriculum and run the schools, including its approved publications, as the court has decided. Still, the decision is disappointing on several grounds. First, as a matter of school procedure, the issue should not have had to go to the court. The Hazelwood, Mo., school authorities, defendants in the case, could have set up a three-party board to review school publications, a common practice. Such a board would be made up of students, faculty, and administration. Flaws in reportage - failure to protect identity of subjects where called for, right of rebuttal by persons discussed - should be pointed out and corrected before publication. Newspapers, after all, require rigorous editing - not everything makes it into print. Such a process would show a regard for matters of judgment. It would make dispute resolution a part of the education process. It would enable students to press for treatment of subjects important to them, but which school authorities might prefer to ignore. In this case, the principal simply excised the materials from the publication without consultation.
Second, we are troubled by the nature of the subjects suppressed in the Hazelwood case - pregnancy and divorce - and by the circumstance that the three writers were young women. The topics were family issues, important to the high school age group; the writers were as regular as one might imagine. No wild-eyed promotion of radical causes here. In the context of these issues and writers, when the majority opinion mentions deference to ``the shared values of a civilized social order,'' it carries an overtone of the long history of male domination in society, and the difficulty of addressing women's issues. A way should be found for student journalists to take up these matters.
Third, are there really grade levels to the right - and one should add, responsibilities - of free speech? Students can write and think awful stuff. But open inquiry, erring on the side of asking questions rather than on the side of silence, should be encouraged.
The lesson in the Hazelwood case is that every publication has a publisher - that is, an owner of the press, an ultimate decider of who staffs the publication and of its editorial policy. Publishers have to make hard decisions. In the real world, power counts. Under the Constitution, authority for the public schools resides in the states, whose legislatures empower boards of education and delegate authority to school districts and school officials. No argument here. A newspaper is a school activity, not an individual expression of opinion, as in the earlier Tinker case, in which the court upheld a student's right to wear a black armband.
Whatever the court's decision, the overriding trend in American society is toward franker public discussion.
The opportunities of free speech and of courageous and responsible publication in the schools should still be sought by young journalists. Students have an alternative venue to the courts: Administrators are accountable to elected school boards, before whom issues of due process and school policy can be addressed.