In 1988, the Supreme Court ruled in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier that educators could censor school-sponsored student expression, including some student publications, if a legitimate educational concern exists. The ruling has limited the rights of high school student journalists under the First Amendment.
But some states have sought to limit the Hazelwood ruling by creating their own standards to ensure that protections for student expression remain.
Such standards, often referred to as anti-Hazelwood measures, are on the books as state statutes in six states and as regulations in two others. Other states have tried to pass similar laws but have found little success.
Anti-Hazelwood legislation in Oregon has failed four times in the last 15 years, and organizers of the effort say it is time for “Plan B.”
Oregon’s most recent anti-Hazelwood measure died in the state legislature in 2001, but a new effort will aim for success during the 2005 legislative session.
In the past, anti-Hazelwood proposals, including Oregon’s, were taken directly to legislators. Now, said Tom Henderson, vice president of the Oregon Society of Professional Journalists, free speech crusaders will target the public first, with plans to speak to students, teachers, administrators and other community members across the state.
“In previous sessions we’ve worked with attorneys to get bills introduced that would reverse Hazelwood in Oregon,” he said. “They invariably died in committee.”
Henderson said he and others would “pick [themselves] up off the floor” for another shot in 2005.
Henderson said public campaigning will be required to garner support for legislation he considers vital to students and education.
“We don’t want this idea to become institutionalized in our society that freedom is only for grown-ups, that you don’t get freedom until you hit the age of 18 and before that you keep your mouth shut,” he said.
“This isn’t just journalists trying to help journalists. Freedom of the press and the freedom to write and speak and think isn’t something you get to do only if you work for a grown up newspaper. It’s something everyone is entitled to, including students.”
One of the many hurdles Henderson has faced is the notion that “rank and file” journalists have no clout in politics. Without major backing from the community or professional organizations, few politicians are willing to stick their necks out on an issue that could alienate voters who are parents, he said.
“Legislators see it as an ideological, nonsensical stance journalists take every two years,” Henderson said.
Support has been scattered at best, he said, especially from groups normally in tune with student media rights. Henderson said the Oregon Newspapers Publishers Association has yet to fully support the measure. The association works to support the rights of publishers, and in the case of student newspapers, school districts often claim they hold the title of publisher.
However, LeRoy Yorganson, executive director of the publishers association, said he would support a measure to limit Hazelwood’s reach in Oregon schools.
“We do have some people who have reservations about it, but as a general rule, the association would come out in favor of something like that, ” he said.
Carla Day, a newspaper adviser at Dallas High School in Dallas, Ore., said her hands-off administration is the exception to most scenarios in other districts where principals and superintendents insist on running student media.
Her student journalists are the lucky few who have not had to deal with censorship, she said. While the state legislators would be hard-pressed to back an anti-Hazelwood measure, it would be in the best interest of students everywhere for them to do so, she said.
“I have a very supportive administration, but that could change in a heartbeat with one story, and then we’re not protected,” Day said.
“Turning over Hazelwood is a really hard sell,” Henderson said. “There’s a knee-jerk reaction on the part of administrators to control things. Hazelwood sort of enshrines that into law.”
Students in other states, such as Pennsylvania, face the possibility of more restrictive standards for free expression.
Proposed changes to the Pennsylvania education code have been taken off the table for 2004 but are expected to resurface in January, said Deborah Griffiths, director of government affairs for the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association.
Devised by the Pennsylvania School Board Association, the changes would reflect the 1988 ruling of Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, which occurred after the state’s current standards were adopted in 1984.
The revisions would allow administrators to censor content in a school-sponsored publication student publication if they have an educational reason.
The state’s legislative committees on education as well as the attorney general will have to approve the measure before it is adopted.