Ten years after Hazelwood, censorship threat continues to grow

The event that student press advocates had both anticipated and feared for a decade finally occurred in November. A court upheld the censorship of a college student publication based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1988 Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier decision.The Hazelwood ruling, you will recall, significantly curtailed the First Amendment protections that lower courts had afforded school-sponsored high school student publications for almost 20 years. Instead of requiring school officials to demonstrate “material and substantiaL disruption” of school activities or invasion of the rights of others before they could censor student newspapers and yearbooks, the Court said officials would be allowed to curtail school-sponsored student expression in non-public forums whenever they could demonstrate they had a “valid educational purpose.” The result was a much more vague and subjective First Amendment standard and, based on our experience at the Student Press Law Center, a significant increase in the amount of censorship of the high school media by school administrators.Despite the fact that the Supreme Court explicitly said in Hazelwood that it was not ruling on the rights of college students, a federal district judge in Kentucky decided to make that leap himself. The decision in Kincaid v. Gibson could set the stage for the Supreme Court to confront this issue head-on.Our optimistic outlook here at the SPLC and the wealth of court precedents emphasizing that free expression rights are especially important on a college or university campus persuades us that this decision will ultimately be overturned. But our expectation of an ultimate legal victory does not diminish our concern about a disturbing fact: a growing number of college and university administrators are willing to sacrifice student press freedom when it does not suit their purposes.The examples in the college censorship section of this issue of the Report are useful illustrations. The top official of one of the largest and most respected university systems in the country says he supports required prior review of student newspapers, despite the fact courts have said such review is unconstitutional. A university chancellor in North Carolina shuts a newspaper down, claiming the publication had not met a technical requirement, after the paper published an unflattering photo of him. And administrators at a community college in Kansas actually confiscated newspapers because of what they described as errors on the front page. Other incidents like these are reported to the SPLC every week.Even if these school officials could legally defend their actions (and our belief is that they cannot), one can only ask how in the world they think they can claim the title of “educator” when they so clearly reject a fundamental value of American democracy. Have they become so cynical that they have given up on the notion of teaching students to think for themselves and take responsibility for their actions, so thin-skinned that they cannot tolerate criticism, so concerned about image that they give it more importance than free expression?Our sad conclusion is that for many college and university officials, the answers to these questions is yes. And their numbers will continue to grow unless the true educators, whether they be faculty members, advisers, students, alumni or legislators, step in and say, “enough.” We all have an obligation to be defenders of the First Amendment. Yet we too often fail to take on that responsibility unless our own rights are being threatened. The Kentucky ruling illustrates the inevitable progression of limitations on freedom: from high school students to college students to anyone.Jan. 13 marks the tenth anniversary of the Hazelwood decision. We urge all defenders of our Constitution and the values behind it to use the occasion to take a stand. The future of our freedom is in your hands.