Tinker still resonates today

This edition of the SPLC Report marks the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Tinker decision, in which the Court famously declared that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”The 40-year history of judicial decisions since Tinker is largely a story of retrenchment. Court after court has found ways to chip away at the First Amendment protection afforded to student speech, most recently in a string of rulings allowing schools to punish students for online criticism of teachers or administrators on personal Web pages entirely created outside of school time.I recently participated in a panel discussion at the National High School Journalism Convention on what is left of Tinker’s strong First Amendment safeguards after the Supreme Court’s 1988 ruling in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier. Hazelwood granted administrators wider (though not unlimited) latitude to censor school-affiliated publications.The highlight of the panel was a presentation by Robert Haar, a distinguished litigator who represented the Hazelwood East school district before the Supreme Court. Haar delivered a balanced assessment of the ruling and the Court’s rationale for it. But when the discussion turned to Hazelwood’s impact on journalism education, Haar acknowledged that, were his son to study journalism, he would want his son to attend a school with the Tinker level of protection for student speech, because that is known to be the sounder educational method of teaching journalism.Haar’s observation reflects a growing consensus among not just journalism advisers, but all educators, that censorship undermines the educational benefits students gain in journalism.This past July, the nation’s biggest teacher organization, the National Education Association, adopted a resolution declaring firm support for free expression in student media. In the resolution, delegates to NEA’s national convention affirmed that “freedom of speech and press are fundamental principles in our democratic society granted by the First Amendment … , and these freedoms provide all people, including students, with the right to engage in robust and uninhibited discussion of issues in student media.”The NEA resolution echoed the sentiment of the nation’s largest professional association of college journalism instructors, which in April 2008 issued a strong declaration of the value of uncensored student expression. The words of the Association of Schools of Journalism and Mass Communication are a resounding rejection of the mindset of a minority of administrators who see the student media as a problem to be minimized or eliminated:”Students who work on high school media learn to think critically, research topics, conduct interviews, write clearly for an audience and work together as a team. In schools with strong journalism programs, they also learn how a free and responsible press can improve their school communities by informing, entertaining and influencing their audience. … ASJMC supports strong journalism programs as not only the training ground for future journalists but also as the place all students can learn about, appreciate and practice democracy in action.”