In the 1969 court case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that students in public schools are entitled to First Amendment rights, provided their methods of free expression are not disruptive or vulgar. According to the majority opinion, written by Justice Abe Fortas, “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” Nearly two decades later, in the 1988 Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier case, the court revised its stance and ruled that public school administrators can censor student speech in newspapers, yearbooks, and other official school publications, even if the speech is not disruptive or indecent. In that decision, Justice Byron White argued: “[We] hold that educators do not offend the First Amendment by exercising editorial control over the style and content of student speech in school-sponsored expressive activities so long as their actions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.” These concerns include teachers’ abilities to instruct their classes and the orderly operation of schools. As a result of Hazelwood, censorship in public schools has become commonplace. In addition, even though college newspapers were not technically affected by the Hazelwood decision, they too have been repeatedly censored.
Not all public school students face censorship, however. According to the Student Press Law Center—a legal assistance agency that educates high school and college students about their First Amendment rights—Arizona, California, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, and Massachusetts have passed anti- Hazelwood laws that protect student free expression rights, while Pennsylvania and Washington have regulations that guard against censorship.
Of course, high schools in other states are affected by Hazelwood. Two incidents of high school newspaper censorship—though not the only ones that year—occurred in 2002. In February, the principal of an Arizona high school confiscated the current issue of the school newspaper because it included a commentary by an African American student on discord among her fellow African American students. The following month, the principal at a Washington, D.C., high school instructed the student staff to remove stories about the off-campus fatal shootings of two students, because he felt the articles placed the school in a bad light.
Many high school students have sought to avoid censorship by publishing on the Internet. Some students publish independently, while others write for larger web publications. Yet even in these cases, students can still be punished for taking advantage of their free speech rights. In March 1995, high school officials in Bellevue, Washington, decided to withdraw their recommendation that a student be considered for a National Merit scholarship after he posted a parody of the school newspaper on his personal website.
Although many educators and their advocates contend that limitations on high school students’ free speech is justified in order to protect minors from potentially inappropriate material, First Amendment activists maintain that censorship contradicts an important aim of education— to encourage the exploration of different, even controversial, viewpoints. In an article for the National Catholic Reporter, John L. Allen Jr. writes: “Censorship tells kids we want mediocrity, not excellence. The better journalists students become, the more they probe, question and speak out, and the more likely an administrator is to snap them back.”
Unlike high school students, nearly all students who work for college newspapers are legal adults; therefore, censorship of college newspapers cannot be justified as a way to protect minors. Nonetheless, newspaper censorship occurs throughout colleges and universities. As in high schools, some of these decisions are made at an administrative level. For example, the administration at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island pulled a spring 2002 column from the student newspaper because it believed the story did not offer a balanced portrayal of the student body.
However, most censorship at the college level occurs at the hands of other students. These acts of censorship typically take less-than-legal forms. Nevertheless, the goal is the same—to prevent stories that might show certain students or groups in a bad light from reaching a wider audience. Newspaper thefts, prompted by the publishing of articles that are found offensive by different segments of the student body, have occurred with alarming frequency since the 1990s. Twenty-five thefts were reported in the 2001–2002 academic year. In one such incident, Temple University freshman Preshal Iyar confessed to stealing (with the help of an accomplice) eighteen thousand copies of the student newspaper after the paper published a story about Iyar’s arrest for mail fraud. Iyar was sent to the university disciplinary committee. In April 2002, one thousand copies of the Texas Christian University newspaper were stolen, most likely because of two articles: one on fraternity hazing and the other concerning a player on the women’s basketball team who had been accused of using a teammate’s credit cards without consent.
At the same time, college newspaper staffs are not always immune from self-censorship. Advertisements that are considered too controversial are often denied publication. One incident that received considerable attention occurred in spring 2001 when conservative columnist David Horowitz submitted an advertisement to forty-eight college newspapers across the country, titled “Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Slavery Are a Bad Idea—And Racist Too.” Only fourteen college newspapers published the ad, and several of those who did so later apologized. Among the newspapers that declined to use the ad were the Harvard Crimson and the University of Virginia’s Cavalier Daily. However, conservatives are not the only ones whose right to free speech is ignored; censorship also occurs at right-wing colleges, whose newspapers have rejected advertisements that assert abortion is not murder.
The debate on whether limits on free speech can be justified extends far beyond the high school and college newsroom. As the above examples show, censorship occurs for a number of reasons, from the trivial to the personal to the political. Political speech may get the most attention, but the actions taken at many high schools in the wake of Hazelwood show that speech does not have to be overtly inflammatory in order to be restricted. Regardless of the reasons, the infringement of campus free speech—and free speech outside the educational system—continues to be a controversial issue. In Should There Be Limits to Free Speech? At Issue, the authors consider whether speech should ever be completely unfettered.