Hazelwood decision reaches 25th anniversary

Katelynn Mccollough

The First Amendment grants U.S. citizens five freedoms: the freedom of speech, press, religion, the right to petition and assemble.

On Jan. 13, 1988, which was 25 years ago, the Supreme Court gave its decision on the Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier case, changing a few of those First Amendment freedoms for student journalists across the country.

The Hazelwood case dealt with a high school student newspaper, “The Spectrum,” in Missouri. The principal of the school chose not to allow the newspaper to print when he did not approve of a teen pregnancy story and a story about divorce.

The court came to the decision that curriculum-based student newspapers had lower First Amendment rights and were subject to censorship.

The Hazelwood decision was meant to be subject to K-12 students.

“Hazelwood hasn’t really impacted us,” said Mary Gannon, an attorney for the Iowa Association of School Boards.

Gannon explained that Iowa has not encountered many issues with Hazelwood because the state created the Iowa Student Free Expression Law in 1989 as a way to uphold students’ First Amendment rights following the Supreme Court decision.

The Iowa Association of School Boards has also created a Student Publications Code, which acts as a set of guidelines for journalism teachers and principals for student free expression under Iowa law.

However, the Iowa Student Free Expression Law only applies to K-12 students.

“The whole issue of high school students and how much free speech rights they have is one of the more interesting areas of media law,” said Kathleen Richardson, executive secretary of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council and the director and associate professor at Drake University’s school of journalism and mass communication.

Richardson said that she has started to hear of cases involving students and their freedom of speech about school curriculum or bullying on Facebook and said that this brings forth questions of how far a public school should be allowed to go to censor student speech.

“Even though Hazelwood started out as a case about journalism, it actually applies to any speech involved with curriculum” said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center.

LoMonte explained that the Hazelwood case has more recently been used as a way to censor not only K-12 students, but is now being seen in court cases involving college students.

One such case took place at Auburn University at Montgomery and dealt with the dismissal of a nursing student, Judith Heenan, who criticized the school’s grading and disciplinary systems.

“It’s insulting and demeaning to college students to not trust them with the Bill of Rights,” LoMonte said, who explained that four out of the 12 Federal Circuit Courts have said that Hazelwood applies to college students.

A university must still prove that any student speech is damaging to educational purposes, but LoMonte said he sees a “trend and growing level of acceptance” in the use of Hazelwood to censor speech at the college level.

“Universities should be more wide open for discussion and debate than any other place on earth,” LoMonte said. “States can always give you more protection.”

According to Student Press Law Center, California, Arkansas, Colorado, Kansas, Massachusetts, Oregon and Iowa have all put into place laws that help to uphold student’s First Amendment rights.