After 25 years, impact of Hazelwood on student journalism is mixed, experts say

WASHINGTON, D.C. — As editor of her sixth-grade newspaper, Lucy Dalglish, the dean of the University of Maryland’s journalism school, said she learned an important lesson from her father about the First Amendment.

Dalglish wrote an editorial on her father’s restrictive television policy in her home. When her angry and embarrassed father confronted her, she said she told him she’d learned about the Supreme Court’s ruling in Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent School District that said she had a right to say “whatever I want.”

“The school lets you say whatever you want, but I am your father and the First Amendment doesn’t apply,” her father replied.

“To me, that sort of was an important lesson in letting children experience the power of the First Amendment,” Dalglish told a group gathered Monday at American University’s Washington College of Law, where she was one of four panelists to participate in a discussion about the 25th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Hazelwood ruling, in which the court said school officials could censor student newspapers “so long as their actions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.”

It’s a lesson she is skeptical students today are able to experience fully in light of the Hazelwood decision. Dalglish, a veteran First Amendment lawyer and press-freedom advocate, said she worries student journalists are self-censoring for fear that administrators will do so themselves.

In Hazelwood School District vs. Kuhlmeier, student journalists with a Missouri student newspaper, The Spectrum, wanted to print, among other articles, two articles discussing teen pregnancy and the effects of divorce on students. The school’s principal said the subject matter was too mature for some students and that the articles weren’t balanced.

Frank Susman, an attorney who represented the Hazelwood student plaintiffs before the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, told the audience that until the Hazelwood ruling, many believed the Tinker standard applied to student newspapers. In Tinker, which affirmed the right to wear anti-war armbands to school, the court said student speech couldn’t be censored unless it “substantially” disrupted the school day.

“The difference that was cited here was that the student newspaper was a school exercise. Wearing the armband was just private speech out of the school context, as opposed to a class of Journalism I or Journalism II,” Susman said. “Because of that distinction, Tinker didn’t really apply.”

Edward Darden, a former student editor himself, was a professional journalist working at the Supreme Court when the ruling came out. Darden, a founding partner at the Practical Education Law Team and former staff attorney at the National School Boards Association, said he had mixed feelings about the case at the time, noting that he felt he had two “beloveds.” One was free speech, but the other was the public school system. He likened his mixed feelings to the Biblical story of King Solomon and the “splitting of the baby.”

“For me, it was like calling out to the court, ‘Oh, Lord, give the win to the school district, but please don’t kill the First Amendment and free speech in the process’,” Darden said. “I think that Hazelwood struck the right kind of compromise, and in the 25 years since has been reasonably implemented with some exceptions.”

Hazelwood itself was about a high school student newspaper, but has since been applied to a wide spectrum of speech, including that of college students. Several of the panelists derided the way it has been applied to adult-aged speakers.

“I cannot understand what role a university would have in regulating in any way what students are speaking about,” Dalglish said.

Darden said he expects Hazelwood to take even greater prominence in schools in the years to come, describing today’s students as “edgier” and more likely to write the kinds of “provocative” pieces that will draw the ire of school administrators.

He and other panelists said the big question about Hazelwood today is how it applies to technological advancements. While blogs and social media make it easy for students to publish work that’s not allowed by school administrators, there’s question in the courts as to where to draw the line in regulating students’ off-campus speech.

“When I was in high school, if a principal were to tell me I can’t write something, that’s it,” Dalglish said. “End of story. No story. Nothing. But in the future, if somebody tells you you can’t publish something, great. You’ve got your own [newspaper].”

Mary Lord, a veteran journalist who serves on the D.C. Board of Education, said technology definitely gives censored students more options, but she warned about the potential harm this technology could cause if it began to push aside traditional newspapers.

“I would suggest,” she said, “that the potential chilling effects of Hazelwood would be diluted by the Internet, but it also risks removing the public discourse portion that newsgathering and journalism is all about.”

By Kaitlin Tipsword, SPLC staff writer. Contact Tipsword by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 119.