Important First Amendment cases influencing student media programs today changed individual schools' policies, national free speech law

The First Amendment grants Americans the right to freedom of speech andfreedom of press, but the exact boundaries of those rights are determined by thecourts. Landmark court cases like Hazelwood School District v.Kuhlmeier and Hosty v. Carter, where the court sided with the schooldistrict, have prompted states to enact legislation that counteracts thecourts’ decisions to uphold censorship of student speech. Othercases like Kincaid v. Gibson and Dean v. Utica Community Schools reaffirm the First Amendment and students’ right to freedom of the press.Each of these landmark cases is unique in the impact it had on journalismprograms and student media, then and now. And behind each entry in the lawbooksis a real school with real students who took a stand to defend their right topublish.

Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier

In 1983, high school journalism students at Hazelwood East High School inSt. Louis, Mo., filed a lawsuit against the Hazelwood School District, claimingtheir First Amendment rights were violated after their principal removed twoarticles from an issue of the school newspaper. The principal argued that twopages in the Spectrum, which included an article relating to teenpregnancy and another concerning the impact of divorce on students at theschool, had inappropriate content and failed to effectively disguise theidentity of confidential sources.

Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, which was decided by theSupreme Court in 1988, ruled that administrators could censor school-sponsoredstudent newspapers that were not “public forums” for studentexpression, if they could show they had a legitimate educational reason fordoing so.

The court decided that the student newspaper is not “characterized asa forum for public expression” and that school officials can exerciseeditorial control of content that is “reasonably related to legitimatepedagogical concerns.”

Mark Goodman, who was executive director of the Student Press Law Centerfrom 1985 to 2007, said the Hazelwood decision was”demoralizing.”

“The most immediate reaction was very much a pullback by high schoolmedia in many places and an unwillingness based on fear to challenge acts ofcensorship that they might have been more inclined to challenge beforethat,” Goodman said.

Several years after the Supreme Court decision, the Hazelwood SchoolDistrict adopted a policy that gives administrators the authority to exerciseprior review ‘ something that was not in the District’s writtenpolicies at the time of the legal challenge.

“School authorities may edit or delete material which is inconsistentwith the district’s legitimate educational concerns,” the currentpolicy states.

Today, the Spectrum’s Managing Editor Jasmine Osby said theschool principal is “lenient” in terms of the prior reviewpolicy.

She said the principal asked the editors to remove the names of two teenageparents in an article about teenage mothers last fall ‘ an articlereminiscent of the 25-year-old court controversy ‘ but otherwise staffwriters cover controversial issues and publish editorials criticizing the schooland school policies without any interference from administrators.

“There isn’t any big, ‘well we’re the Hazelwoodfrom the Hazelwood court case so we’re going to strictly enforcethis,'” Osby said. “It is censored because it goes throughprior review, but at the same time, it’s not strict.”

Since the Hazelwood decision, seven states ‘ Arkansas,California, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Massachusetts, and Oregon ‘ haveenacted laws overturning the Hazelwood standard, which restore full FirstAmendment protection for high school media.

Goodman, who is currently a professor of journalism at Kent StateUniversity in Kent, Ohio, said Hazelwood forced First Amendment advocatesand student journalists to fight censorship “in the arena of publicopinion.”

“The law was no longer going to be the most effective way to contestcensorship,” Goodman said. “It’s sad that it took a badSupreme Court decision to force that lesson, but that was, I believe, reallyvaluable, and it gives us tools and tactics for things that are still going ontoday that have served student media well.”

Hosty v. Carter

In 2001, three student journalists ‘ Margaret Hosty, Jeni Porche andSteven Barba ‘ sued Governors State University in University Park, Ill.,after school administrators stopped the newspaper, the Innovator, fromprinting.

Dean Patricia Carter demanded review of the Innovator’scontent before consenting to pay the newspaper’s printing bill, whichcontradicted a university policy stating that the student newspaper staff would”determine content and format of their respective publications withoutcensorship or advance approval.”

Initially, a district court ruled in favor of the student journalists, butthe decision was overturned on appeal in the 7th U.S. Circuit Court ofAppeals.

Using the Hazelwood standard, the court determined the status of thenewspaper as a public forum. It ruled that the Student Communications MediaBoard, which acted as the publisher of the Innovator and was comprised ofseven members chosen by the Student Senate, established the newspaper as a

“designated public forum, where the editors were empowered to make theirown decisions, wise or foolish, without fear that the administration would stopthe presses.”

However, the court also established that Carter was not responsible fordamages, because she could not have known whether the limitations ofHazelwood did or did not apply to college campuses.

The Innovator ceased publication in late 2000. In 2002, thePhoenix was established and currently serves as the GSU studentnewspaper, publishing twice monthly. Currently, the school has no officialpolicy regarding school publications.

Goodman called Hosty “an aberration.”

“There is no other court decision like it in the country that agreeswith the reasoning or the analysis that the 7th Circuit [Court of Appeals]engaged in,” Goodman said.

He said that Hosty, like Hazelwood, forced new legislation onthe state level that was never discussed before.

“It, like the Hosty ruling, served as a wake-up call tocollege journalists and those who support them that we cannot sit back andpresume the First Amendment is all we need to defend our press freedom,”Goodman said. “And the more specific consequence was getting stateslike Illinois, California and Oregon to enact statutes explicitly limitingcensorship on the college level and protecting student press freedom. I meanthat’s something that just wasn’t in the conversation beforeHosty.”

In addition to the free expression laws enacted by California and Oregon,the Illinois legislature passed the College Campus Press Act, which declared anystudent media outlet at a public college a public forum and prohibits schoolofficials from censoring the content of student publications.

Kincaid v. Gibson

Two Kentucky State University students sued the school in 1995 after BettyGibson, the vice president for student affairs, confiscated the studentyearbook, the Thorobred. According to court documents, Gibson felt thecontent of the yearbook was inappropriate and disagreed with including currentevents unrelated to the school in the book. She said the purple cover wasunrelated to KSU because it did not represent the school colors and alsoobjected to the theme of the book, “Destination Unknown.”

Capri Coffer, who edited the yearbook, and Charles Kincaid, a student whopaid a mandatory fee and felt he was entitled to his yearbook, argued that theirFirst Amendment rights had been violated by Gibson’s actions.

The U.S. district court ruled in favor of Kentucky State, citingHazelwood on the basis that because the school did not establish theyearbook as a public forum, Gibson had the legal right to censor the yearbook.

However, the 6th U.S Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision,clearly stating that Hazelwood does not apply to college and universitycampuses.

“The university is a special place for purposes of First Amendmentjurisprudence,” the court said, differentiating the case fromHazelwood because it occurred on a college campus. The opinion statedthat “chilling individual thought and expression is especially real in theuniversity setting, where the state acts against a background and tradition ofthought and experiment that is at the center of our intellectual and philosophictradition.”

The court also determined that the KSU yearbook was a public forum, citingthe actual practice of producing the publication. “Student editors, notKSU officials, not the student publications adviser and not the StudentPublications Board, determined the content of KSU’s studentyearbook,” the court said.

According to Goodman, the ruling was a beneficial precedent for all studentmedia.

“In this case, where they found, if you will, even a yearbook isentitled to strong First Amendment protection, that only makes the argument morestrongly for other student media out there,” Goodman said.

The Thorobred is no longer published at Kentucky State and was lastprinted in 1998, according to the Kentucky State University librarydatabase.

Dean v. Utica Community Schools

In 2002, Utica High School senior Katy Dean researched and wrote a storyabout Utica, Mich., residents Rey and Joanne Frances, who claimed that dieselexhaust from a district-owned school-bus garage near their home causedRey’s lung cancer.

The superintendent claimed Dean’s article lacked research and pulledit from the Arrow, the student newspaper. Dean filed suit against thedistrict, claiming her First Amendment rights were violated.

A U.S. district court found that the school district illegally censored herstory. Student journalists “must be allowed to publish viewpoints contraryto those of state authorities without intervention or censorship by theauthorities themselves,” the court said. Significantly, the court went onto say that, even under the Hazelwood standard, school officials’

unwillingness to accept criticism was not a lawful basis to kill the story:”Even if the Arrow is a non-public forum, [school officials’]suppression of Dean’s article was unreasonable.”

Currently, the Utica Community School District has no policy in placeregarding the Arrow or any student publications.

According to Mike Horan, former editor-in-chief of the Arrow, priorreview is not a policy at Utica and the students typically have control of thepublication, except for a few instances.

One example Horan described was a privacy issue regarding bathroom doorsbeing removed from the boy’s bathrooms because bomb threats were beingwritten on them.

“There was a privacy issue and one of our students wanted to writeabout how he felt it wasn’t fair,” Horan said. “Our principalwas kind of leery because it was making the school look bad, but eventuallyafter we talked to them, it did end up happening, and it did run.”

Horan said the same student faced adversity when writing a column aboutstarting a gay and lesbian pride group at the school, but the column eventuallywas published.

“The students put the paper together,” Horan said.

“Anything that we wanted to run … she (the principal) would back us 100percent. … She wanted the best for the paper.”

Arrow adviser Stacy Smale said the principal meets with the staff ina press conference style monthly so they can openly ask questions and getcomments for stories.

“The administration has always been very supportive,” Smalesaid. “I’ve certainly never had any cases of prior review or of themasking to see something before it was printed. It’s a very student-runpublication.”

Goodman said that although Dean only applies in one jurisdiction, itreaffirmed the provisions of the First Amendment.

“It was reassurance that Hazelwood wasn’t the deathknell that some attempted to portray it as, that quality student journalismcould still be protected by the First Amendment,” Goodman said. “Ithink what the Dean case did was give the ability for students and othersto stop censor-prone administrators in their tracks by saying ‘youdon’t have a blank check when it comes to censorship. The First Amendmentstill creates limitations on what you can do.'”