Is it constitutional for school officials to censor a school-sponsored publication, such as a newspaper or a yearbook?
How much school officials may censor school-sponsored student publications depends on whether the school has created an open public forum.
For years, students were protected by a high standard of freedom of expression based on the Supreme Court’s historic 1969 ruling in the Tinker case, in which the Court ruled that school officials couldn’t prevent students from expressing their opinions on school grounds, as long as they didn’t (a) cause a material or substantial disruption of the school environment, or (b) intrude on the rights of others.
For years, most courts supported the notion of granting students a high degree of protection under the First Amendment. That changed in 1988.
In January 1988 the Supreme Court, in a narrow 5-3 vote, ruled that the principal of Hazelwood East High School was justified in censoring a series of controversial articles in his school’s newspaper, The Spectrum.1
In the ruling of Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, the Supreme Court established a new standard of protection for student expression, by ruling that schools may limit the personal expression of students if their speech can be perceived to bear the imprimatur of the school.2 Writing for the majority, Justice Byron White said "censorship of school-sponsored student expression is permissible when school officials can show that it is reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns."
As a result, administrators now have a great deal of leeway in determining what is and isn’t acceptable material in school-sponsored publications and events, but only if their school has not established a public forum.
In other words, if the school has an official policy of prior review in place, or can clearly establish a history of prior review, the Hazelwood standard applies and a greater degree of censorship is allowed. If, however, the school declares itself an open forum for ideas, then the Tinker standard applies.
The students had prepared a two-page center spread that featured stories on teenage pregnancy, divorce, and runaways. They learned that the pages had been omitted when the paper returned from the printers. Almost immediately, three of the student journalists filed suit.
With regard to school newspapers, the Supreme Court suggested that any publication that is supervised by a faculty member and created by the school to offer a particular set of skills is curricular, and would bear the school’s imprimatur. By extension, that also means that the Hazelwood ruling can apply to school yearbooks, school plays, literary magazines, or any other form of school-sponsored speech that fulfills the given criteria.
Tuesday, May 21, 2013 | 10:18:42