Hazelwood turns 25: Five simple ways you can make sure it never turns 50

A movie of trained fighting dogs ripping each other to pieces.

Ten million dollars from an undisclosed source dumped into a special-interest ad campaign to sway the outcome of an election.

A padded resumé falsely claiming credit for military heroism.

A video game in which players tear the limbs off their opponents, then beat them to death with the blood-soaked stumps.

“Thank God for Dead Soldiers” hate-speech signs waved outside of a military funeral.

A newspaper editorial advocating the defeat of a school board candidate who supports banning books.

The Supreme Court thinks one of these is unprotected by the First Amendment.

If you guessed it was the editorial, then you are likely either (a) a federal judge or (b) a victim of Hazelwood justice.

This coming Sunday marks 25 years since the Supreme Court confined America’s young people to a constitutional underclass in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, a ruling that in recent years has been applied with equally devastating effect to not-so-young people, up to and including 50-year-old graduate students.

In declaring that a school could lawfully censor students’ journalistic work merely by pointing to “legitimate pedagogical concerns,” the Court’s 5-3 majority devalued the input of young people into the educational process.

The ruling gave official sanction to the worst instincts of a small but significant minority of school administrators. It lent a stamp of legitimacy to those who aspire to nothing greater than a day without controversy — or worse, to those who believe that the public has no right to know whether schools are ineffective, dirty or dangerous.

There are five simple things that everyone who cares about making schools more rewarding and less disempowering can do to help keep another generation of young people from being degraded by Hazelwood censorship:

(1) Audit your school’s own free-speech policies. Get copies of the district-level and building-level policies that govern student expression. Some of them are so extreme that they’re not even compliant with the minimal First Amendment safeguards left standing after Hazelwood. Help your school and your district understand that policies giving students fewer rights than the Constitution — for instance, policies that let administrators censor speech just because it is “offensive” or “controversial” — are never permissible.

(2) Work for better laws, or for compliance with current laws. Seven states have laws reversing the damage inflicted by Hazelwood (and an eighth, Illinois, has one for college students only). A well-organized campaign with the support of students, teachers, the legal community and the news media can end the grip of Hazelwood on young learners. At the local level, get involved in school board campaigns, putting candidates on the spot to take a public position about ending censorship. (And even private institutions — which aren’t governed by the First Amendment — can enact free-expression policies that offer First Amendment-like freedoms, if there is enough pressure from students and parents.)

But enacting a more balanced law is just the beginning. Many schools are unaware of state legal protections and continue behaving as if Hazelwood governs them. Constant reminders and training are essential.

(3) Use our talking points to speak, write, blog, teach and tweet. Those who oppose freedom of expression in schools don’t fight fair — they deal in myths and fabrications, contending that the Hazelwood level of control is necessary to “keep the inmates from running the asylum.” Fight back with research and facts. Use the upcoming 25th anniversary — and the power of your voice — to help the public understand why legalized censorship is an educationally unsound practice.

(4) Get the bracelet and raise awareness. The one right Hazelwood didn’t take away is the right to wear a slogan calling for political or social change, even on school grounds during school time. We have just the one: these “Cure Hazelwood” bracelets will raise awareness of the cancerous effects of censorship on young people’s ability to develop as participatory citizens.

(5) Put it on the record. It can be hard to muster the courage to come forward and challenge school authority. But students at public schools and colleges cannot be suspended, expelled or otherwise punished simply for telling the truth about what is going on in their schools. Making progress requires demonstrating to the public the enormity of the censorship problem — and that requires its victims to step up and make themselves heard. Speaking up is the best way to take the power back from those whose wrongdoing thrives in silence.