Twenty-five years after the Supreme Court limited First Amendment protections for high school student journalists, a survey of students and media advisers attending a national journalism convention suggests that censorship in their schools is a common occurrence.
Of the 4,540 students and teachers who attended the National High School Journalism Convention in San Antonio, Tex., Nov. 15-18, 2012, 500 students and 78 advisers responded to survey questions asking about their experiences with censorship of student media.
Significant numbers of both students (42 percent) and advisers (41 percent) said school officials had told them not to publish or air something. Fifty-four percent of students reported a school official reviews the content of their student news medium before it is published or aired. And 58 percent of advisers said someone other than students had the final authority to determine the content of the student media they advise.
In addition, 10 percent of advisers said school officials had threatened their position as adviser or their job at the school based on content decisions their students had made.
Both student and adviser respondents indicated self-censorship was an issue they confronted. Thirty-nine percent of students and 32 percent of advisers said their staff had decided not to publish something based on the belief that school officials would censor it.
The survey was administered by the Student Press Law Center and the convention sponsors, the National Scholastic Press Association and the Journalism Education Association. The survey was formulated and the results tabulated by the Center for Scholastic Journalism at Kent State University. The results are not intended to represent a random sampling of students and advisers nationwide, but are an anecdotal indication of their experiences.
The respondents to the survey represented students and teachers from 31 states and included those working with newspapers and newsmagazines, yearbooks, websites and television broadcast programs. The majority of the respondents were from schools with more than 2,000 students, but 5 percent were from schools with fewer than 500 students.
“These conventions attract the best high school student media staffs in the country, the ones that win national awards for their excellent work,” said Professor Mark Goodman, Knight Chair in Scholastic Journalism at Kent State. “If over 40 percent of these students are experiencing censorship, it’s a reasonable assumption that the number for all high school student publications in the country is much higher.”
On Jan. 13, 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a ruling in the case Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier limiting the First Amendment protections for public high school student journalists. However, the ruling did not require school officials to censor and some legal protections against censorship remain. Journalism education organizations have condemned the ruling and endorsed the educational value of protecting student press freedom.
“As we take stock of how the Hazelwood decision has impacted a generation of young learners, it’s important for the public to understand that censorship is not something that happens in isolated backwaters. It’s a reality in every type of school and in every state, and a problem that afflicts more than journalism,” said Frank D. LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, a nonprofit legal information and advocacy organization based in Arlington, Va.
“With the school-reform community focused on helping students become more civically literate and ridding schools of bullying, ending heavy-handed censorship must be part of that discussion and part of a complete solution. Schools will continue to be disempowering places where no meaningful discussion of civic issues takes place so long as Hazelwood censorship is practiced,” LoMonte said.
The SPLC recently launched a website and outreach campaign, www.curehazelwood.org, timed to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court ruling on Jan. 13. The site includes information about the case, stories of how Hazelwood censorship has affected young people, and tips to help students work to improve the state of their own rights.
Also in conjunction with the Hazelwood anniversary, the Journalism Education Association’s Scholastic Press Rights Commission has created a Teacher’s Kit with guidance for student journalists and media advisers about how to respond to school censorship. The kit is available online.
Frank D. LoMonte, SPLC executive director
Mark Goodman, Knight Chair in Scholastic Journalism
Center for Scholastic Journalism, Kent State University