An infectious disease is quietly spreading across the country, harming students at college campuses and high schools alike and leaving behind collateral damage that can take years to correct. The disease often goes unheard of, precisely because censorship lies at the center of the epidemic. Yet those responsible for instituting a cure for the devastating Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier Supreme Court decision have turned a blind eye as the decision, which was originally intended to only regulate speech in public high schools, has spread to college campuses as a means to justify ludicrous acts of censorship on campuses everywhere.
This issue has severe ramifications for plainspoken students who don’t think anything they say could ever be called into question by their universities. But this is just the problem: The landmark Hazelwood court decision gives public universities the freedom to censor students — including journalists, artists and musicians — at whim. Universities can even go so far as to censor graduation speakers.
In 1988, the Supreme Court voted 5-3 (with one seat vacant) that schools no longer needed to demonstrate censored speech was disruptive in order to justify silencing students. Instead, administrators could censor any curricular speech that warranted “legitimate pedagogical concerns.”
Hazelwood hits close to home for me. When I moved on from high school to college, I breathed a little easier knowing a censored media and student body were being left behind. The recent trend of expanding Hazelwood’s reach to college campuses gives me pause and reminds me of the danger this ruling represents for a public campus. I am fortunate to work for The Badger Herald, which has complete independence from the University of Wisconsin, and as such, falls outside the jurisdiction of the Hazelwood decision. But not all student newspapers have that luxury.
My junior and senior years at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Ill., were marred by an administration determined to dispirit its own students via arbitrary acts of censorship against its student newspaper, where I worked as the Editor-in-Chief. The administration decided hard-hitting stories about a spike in teen pregnancy, violations of the student code of conduct and students involved in a series of local thefts were “not appropriate for print.”
They attempted to bully my team of editors and me into revealing the names of our sources, threatening suspension for one or both parties. They continued to remove stories as the weeks went on, bringing students to tears time and time again and demoralizing our staff by insinuating our award-winning team consisted of poor writers and unethical reporters. While both sides brought in legal counsel, the administration succeeded in squeezing out our talented adviser and forced the resignation of the entire upper management student editorial team.
Because I understood the law and the minimal rights Hazelwood actually afforded to us, I was able to make sure that our censorship story was heard — I was not going to allow a powerful and image conscious administration to bully their students into silence. Our story became a national headline, and we gained the support of major editorial boards such as the Chicago Tribune’s.
The reason I am telling my story one more time is because not all students know their rights before they run into trouble, and the result is that most of these stories go unheard and students’ voices are silenced.
Last week marked the 25th anniversary of the Hazelwood ruling — 25 years since the Supreme Court put a black mark on public education’s academic freedom. The anniversary came and went, but our fight as students and as a community cannot end so quickly. It is time to cure Hazelwood and take a stand against those who say students are better seen than heard, better off being taught than trying to teach others.
I had a handful of friends in high school that did not understand why the fight against Hazelwood was important. They made the argument that public school students are minors under the watch of the state and should not be able to publish controversial or upsetting content in a student newspaper simply because they were students and had no business stirring things up.
Here are just a few reasons for which the current laws allowing administrators of both colleges and high schools to censor their students are dangerous and arbitrary:
• A Texas high school cheerleader was disciplined after she quietly sat down instead of participating in a cheerleading routine that included the name of a basketball player who, as the school knew, was the subject of a criminal complaint accusing him of raping her.
• A Florida high school yearbook editor was fired after he challenged the principal’s decision not to run a senior picture of a lesbian student who was wearing a tuxedo.
• A New York administrator was allowed to censor a story that truthfully reported that his school of 3,600 students had only two functional bathrooms.
This list, complied by the Student Press Law Center, has no end. The number of students who have their voices silenced serves as a legitimate threat to the democratic principles this country is founded on.
When Justice William Brennan dissented from the Hazelwood ruling, he argued, “[U]nthinking contempt for individual rights is intolerable from any state official. It is particularly insidious from one to whom the public entrusts the task of inculcating in its youth an appreciation for the cherished democratic liberties that our Constitution guarantees.”
Brennan’s dissent could not be truer. The lessons censorship teaches create a hostile environment in which students, and our society, cannot grow. They send the message that educated and colorful debate and discourse are unacceptable.
But that’s not the worst part of it. Perhaps the most frightening ramification of the Hazelwood decision is the impact a lack of information has on a community. Without a truthful and honest press holding officials and groups accountable, democratic society as we know it is at risk. The responsibility of the journalistic community is to tell the stories no one wants to hear and to protect society by publishing information that may be inconvenient but nevertheless true.
If we as a community do not act together and act soon, the fundamental democratic principles of our society may dissipate quickly and with the public knowing very little until it’s too late. It is time to reverse Hazelwood and to stand up for the rights of every student. Students’ rights should not end at the schoolhouse gate. Challenging Hazelwood will be a test of the our generation’s ability to succeed when the real world hits hard.