Hazelwood symposium to mark 25th anniversary

This coming Jan. 13, America marks an anniversary that is no cause for celebration.

It soon will be 25 years since the Supreme Court rolled back the First Amendment rights of young people everywhere in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, a ruling that has poisoned the learning environment not just for journalism but for the teaching of civics and critical thinking.

The Supreme Court’s 1988 ruling upset the delicate balance between school authority and individual liberty that the Court so artfully struck 19 years earlier in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District.

As a result of Hazelwood, it is almost impossible for a censored student to prevail in a First Amendment challenge, so long as a school can point to some justification that is in the general vicinity of reasonableness. The Hazelwood mentality now permeates public education, so that schools no longer feel they owe students an honest explanation for their decisions, and students no longer believe – even when they are entirely in the right – that they can “fight city hall.”

While Hazelwood began as, and still often is thought of as, a case about high school newspapers, it has spread like an oil slick across all of public education, diminishing students’ ability to make their own choices in musical and theatrical performances, graduation speeches and anything else that a school can convince a court is “curricular” in nature.

And Hazelwood’s toxic effects are in no way limited to “children.” As the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided in January, even adult-aged college students in professional programs can be held to the “training-wheels” level of free expression rights if they oppose school academic policies.

Because an entire generation has now grown up entirely in the shadow of Hazelwood, it is timely to take stock of the Court’s ruling, and how it has affected not just the teaching of journalism, but the teaching of critical thinking and good citizenship.

That is why the Student Press Law Center is partnering with the University of North Carolina School of Journalism and Mass Communication and the staff of the First Amendment Law Review at the UNC School of Law to organize a two-day symposium, “One Generation Under Hazelwood: A 25-Year Retrospective on Student First Amendment Rights,” to be held Nov. 8-9 at the college’s Chapel Hill, N.C., campus.

The symposium brings together leading stakeholders from law, journalism, civics education and school administration – including students – to assess how Hazelwood has impacted young people’s development as participatory citizens. It will result in the production of a special edition of the First Amendment Law Review devoted to student free expression issues.

Well-known presenters participating in the discussion will include University of California-Irvine law school dean Erwin Chemerinsky, author-educator Sam Chaltain, General Counsel Francisco Negron of the National School Boards Association, and many more.

The events are open to the public, and anyone interested in being part of the conversation is encouraged to attend by signing up online.

The SPLC considers the events of Nov. 8 and 9 to be the start of a continuing campaign to remind the country that the Hazelwood affliction is curable, and that a healthier and more positive learning environment not only is attainable but has existed in the relatively recent past.
— Frank D. LoMonte, executive director

Register for the symposium