Reinforcing a Bad Civics Lesson in Texas

CENSORSHIP has triumphed in the Austin, Texas, Independent School District, with the United States Supreme Court's blessing.The Austin school board recently authorized principals to review all material in high school student newspapers - before publication. A principal may decide "to remove content from a publication" if he or she does so "in a timely manner and for a specific reason supported by the school's educational mission." This is prior restraint, one of the most pernicious forms of censorship. Historically, it has been used by those in positions of power to stifle controversy and silence dissent. It is antithetical to the First Amendment, as the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled. Yet the court has also said that prior restraint is constitutional when applied to school-sponsored student publications. In the case of Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeler (1988), five justices ruled that high school students are second-class citizens. When they write for their school newspapers, students do not enjoy full First Amendment protection. In the Hazelwood case, a suburban St. Louis principal in 1983 had banned potentially controversial stories about abortion and divorce from running in his high school's student newspaper. The Supreme Court upheld his authority to do so. In Austin, controversial stories about teen sexuality, AIDS, and safe sex published last April in the Lone Star Dispatch, Bowie High School's student newspaper, triggered the school board's new policy authorizing prior restraint. Angry parents and other district residents protested that those articles were "pure filth" and "an example of the moral degradation of our society." The stories critics charged, "put ideas in [students'] minds that didn't need to be there." Protesters believed that prohibiting students from publicly discussing teen issues would make them disappear. They also wanted to suppress viewpoints they found disagreeable. They thus exemplify a widespread intolerance that threatens the nation's schools and students. This closed-mindedness also manifests itself in attempts to bar sex education from public schools; in criticism of teachers who use innovative methods; in opposition to the teaching of evolution in science classes; and in efforts to ban books. Targets vary, but the intent of this censorial intolerance is always the same - to close students' minds, to instill conformity, and to stifle curiosity. Prior restraint effectively advances these goals. The Austin school board policy authorizing prior restraint disingenuously speaks of furthering "the teaching of the fundamental principles of journalism in a democratic society." It says that each of the district's high school student newspapers is to "function both as a laboratory for journalism students and as a service and forum for the school community." Prior restraint, however, is inimical to "the fundamental principles of journalism in a democratic society." Subjecting a public forum to prepublication censorship invariably chills free expression, ultimately padlocking the marketplace of ideas. Democracy does not long survive in such a hostile climate. Few high school administrators are trained journalists committed to freedom of the press. Principals also typically seek to minimize conflict with parents and other community residents. Intimidation from well-organized censorial pressure groups can thus force student newspapers to print only happy news about non-controversial topics. This is the scenario Justice William Brennan Jr. envisioned inevitably resulting from the Hazelwood decision. It is the situation that will likely occur soon in Austin. Three years ago, Justice Brennan wrote in his dissenting opinion that the Hazelwood case was a bad civics lesson. Today's Austin school board policy confirms his prescience. Censorship is rarely a good civics lesson. Nor is banning the publication of news stories simply because they are controversial. Many adults who should know this - including five Supreme Court justices and countless school administrators and board members across the country - unfortunately haven't learned it yet. High school students, though, are the real victims of this bad civics lesson. They deserve better.

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