Citation: 484 U.S. 260 (1988)
Vote of the Court: It was a 5-3 decision from the Court, with Justices White, Rehnquist, Stevens, O’Connor and Scalia voting for the majority. Justices Brennan, Marshall and Blackmun dissented. There were not concurring opinions. Justice Kennedy did not participate in the opinion.
Legal issue: To what extent can a school exercise editorial control over the content of a school newspaper, funded and produced under the sponsorship of the school?
Procedure of the case: The case was first tried in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri. After a bench trial without a jury, the judge entered a verdict for the Hazelwood School District. Kuhlmeier appealed the decision to the Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit who reversed the decision of the district court and entered a finding for Kuhlmeier. The Hazelwood School District then filed a petition for a writ of certiorari with the United States Supreme Court to review the 8th Circuit court’s decision. The Court agreed to hear the case during its fall 1987 term.
Facts: In spring 1983, students in the Journalism II class of Hazelwood East High School in Missouri were preparing stories for the next edition of the school newspaper the Spectrum. The paper was written and edited by the students under the supervision of the class teacher as part of the course’s requirements. As was common practice at the school, before publishing, the paper was submitted to the school principal by the teacher of the class for review. Upon review, the principal objected to two articles in the draft: a story about the experiences of several female students dealing with their pregnancies and a story about the effects of divorce on one high school student. According to the principal, he was concerned that the articles were not suitable for younger students; would be damaging to privacy of the students in the articles and did not provide a fair opportunity for people mentioned in the articles to give their point of view. However, rather than have the articles rewritten in line with his suggestions or removed, the principal thinking there was no time for corrections to be made before the publishing date, ordered that the two pages that contained the articles be completely removed from the paper even though those pages contained other articles that the principal did not object to.
Question presented: Did the deletion of the two pages violate the First Amendment rights of the Spectrum’s student editors and writers.
Answer: No. The deletion of the two pages from the newspaper did not violate the student’s First Amendment rights.
Court reasoning: The Court’s exploration of the focused on two fundamental questions: whether the school was a public forum that has historically been open to speech-related activity and whether the principal acted reasonably. Under Court’s analysis, public schools in general are not public forums and so any consideration of the First Amendment in terms of a public school needed to take into account the “special light of the school environment.” Indeed, according to the Court, a school could only become a public forum if there were specific school policies or practices that would “allow indiscriminate use by the general public or a segment of the public.” Consequently, since there was no evidence that Hazelwood East High School was a public forums,; schools officials and administrators had the authority to regulate speech under its auspices such as the Spectrum which was largely funded by the school, was a part of the curriculum and was supervised by a school employee. The Court emphasized, that the school’s power to regulate the Spectrum was different then its power to regulate individual student speech that occurs on campus such by a group of students talking amongst themselves about pregnancy and divorce. In essence, the Court found that if the “speech” carries the school’s name, sponsorship, funding or is part of the school’s basic educational mission then the school had a right to regulate the style and content of the speech as long as the regulation was “reasonably related to a pedagogical concern” or educational purpose. As to whether the school acted reasonably, the Court found that the principal acted reasonably based on the information that was available to him at the time he reviewed the draft of the paper.
Dissent: In the dissent, Justice Brennan found that the newspaper was a forum in which to allow student the chance to express their views “while gaining an appreciation of their rights and responsibilities.” Accordingly, Brennan felt that the stories (and pages) should have only been deleted if it was shown that they would “cause a material and substantial disruption of school activities or an invasion of the rights of others.” Since there was no evidence that the stories would evoke such as response, under Brennan’s analysis they should not have been removed.
The significance of the case: The case in, effect, allowed public school officials the right to regulate student speech that was made under school sponsorship or auspices (such as a school newspaper) if they felt that the speech was opposite to an educational goal. In essence, the case held that as long as a student publication is funded, supervised or controlled by a school and that readers might reasonably think that the stories in the publication were approved by the school, officials or administrators had the power to regulated the content to ensure that the content is suitable to all readers and not “erroneously attributed to the school.” Many have argued, including Justice Brennan, however that the actual effect of the decision was to give school officials the power to censor any content they did not like in the name of education and that it would lead to discourage student expression, active learning and civil participation.
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Citation: 484 U.S. 260 (1988)
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