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Student Newspapers and Public Forums

In 1969, a U. S. District Court in New York ruled that the principal of New Rochelle High School in New York violated the First Amendment after prohibiting students from accepting a paid advertisement opposing the Vietnam War.

The school contended it could bar the advertisement because of its long-standing policy limiting the content of the paper to “matters pertaining to the high school and its activities.” The school also argued that because citizens do not have a right of access to the private press, in a school environment, students should not have a right of access to the school paper.

The court rejected those arguments, saying the school paper should be open to free expression of ideas. Even though there were alternate methods of protest, the students must be allowed to use the newspaper as a public forum to express themselves and disseminate ideas.

As the judge in the 1969 case Zucker v. Panitz put it, “It is patently unfair in light of the free speech doctrine to close to the students the forum which they deem effective to present their ideas. It would be both incongruous and dangerous for this court to hold that students who wish to express their views on matters intimately related to them, through traditionally accepted non-disruptive modes of communication, may be precluded from doing so.”

The student newspaper as a public forum would become central to the Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier case 19 years later. Indicating that the school newspaper occupied a special place as a means for student expression, the court said, “Clearly a newspaper by its nature is a forum for student expression of ideas and viewpoints. The school cannot realistically argue that this is solely an education device.”

Zucker v. Panitz was the first in what would be a long line of lower court school newspaper cases between 1969 and 1988. Without exception, when confronted with cases involving censorship of school-sponsored high school newspapers and yearbooks, courts applied the Tinker standard. Schools could censor only when they could prove the story at issue would result in a “material and substantial interference with schoolwork or discipline or could result in an invasion of the rights of other students.”

“Material and substantial interference with schoolwork or discipline” was typically defined as a physical disruption that directly interfered with the school’s primary purpose of educating students. “Invasion of the rights of other students” was usually defined as a legal invasion — libel or invasion of privacy.

Questions for Discussion

  1. What is a “precedent”? What decision was a precedent for Zucker v. Panitz?
  2. What is a public forum?
  3. Why is it important for the student media to be a public forum?
  4. What is censorship? In what ways did Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District and Zucker v. Panitz influence censorship by school officials?

Last updated: Wednesday, February 10, 2016 | 06:02:14