Speaking up for a generation of lost voices: Why Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier is a sickness that needs curing

As recently as 46 years ago, states could make it a crime for a white woman to marry a black man; now, we have the son of an interracial couple in the White House. As recently as 10 years ago, states could make it a crime for two men to have sexual relations; now, nine states and the District of Columbia will give those men a marriage license. As Dr. King famously reassured his impatient followers, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

But try telling that to young people, the only demographic group in America that it is widely socially acceptable to demonize, and the only group whose civil rights are in worse condition today than they were 40 years ago.

Twenty-five years ago today, the Supreme Court told students in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier that they could learn about the Bill of Rights as a dusty historical artifact, but could not experience it for themselves. Relying on that precedent, a Texas appeals court told a 16-year-old rape victim that she was no more than a “mouthpiece” for her school and had no right to engage in a silent moment of protest.

If you are not outraged over Hazelwood, get there.

Three years ago, an elite high school in Chicago’s privileged suburbs undertook a calculated campaign to destroy journalism, driving off a devoted adviser with a trophy case of national awards and forcing students to publish a government-sanitized version of the truth. The flashpoint was a story in which an unnamed recent graduate talked about the easy availability of illegal drugs on campus — a story that administrators censored under a fictitious “no anonymous sources” policy that they fabricated to legitimize what everyone knew to be a naked exercise in image control.

Relying on Hazelwood, in which the Supreme Court itself used the word “censor” six times to describe the removal of articles from student newspapers, the local school board chairman, unironically channelling George Orwell, declared that what happened at Stevenson High School was “not censorship, it is good teaching.”

Fast-forward to 2012, and Stevenson High School was again in the news — this time, for yanking more than 100 students into administrators’ offices and searching their cellphones for evidence of drug trafficking in a schoolwide probe that ended with two arrests. A school that put its public-relations image ahead of student welfare was, belatedly, forced to confront the reality that its young journalists had tried so hard to warn the public about.

Justice William Brennan, the First Amendment champion whose dissenting opinion in Hazelwood has proven sadly prophetic, concluded that the censored high school journalists of Hazelwood East High School “expected a civics lesson, but not the one the Court teaches them today.” But he could have been talking about the experience of students at Stevenson, or at the many hundreds of other schools (and, increasingly, colleges) where administrators have invoked Hazelwood to suppress unwelcome opinions and uncomfortable truths.

It’s acceptable to lie. Unethical conduct will go unpunished. Difficult issues are not to be discussed or confronted in public. People in power always protect each other, regardless of what is right. This is the behavior modeled for students by adults, at Stevenson and in every school darkened by Hazelwood‘s shadow.

If we show students the wrong way to swing a bat on the baseball diamond, or the wrong way to mix chemicals in the laboratory, we understand that they will emulate it. We should be equally unsurprised when students are more influenced by the way that civics is practiced and demonstrated than by the way it is explained in textbooks.

All day long, the Student Press Law Center will be tweeting out stories of Hazelwood censorship using the hashtag #curehazelwood. All year long, we’ll be using www.curehazelwood.org to put a human face on the cancerous toll that Hazelwood has inflicted on education.

That the nation’s editorial pages were almost uniformly silent about Hazelwood on this anniversary date — that the people most directly invested in the survival of the First Amendment would not invest a moment in its defense — perhaps best attests to the complacency and civic laziness that a generation of Hazelwood has bred.

If you care about citizenship education, then Hazelwood is your problem. If you are concerned about media literacy, then Hazelwood is your issue.

Talking about it is a beginning, but it is only that. Write your state legislator. Call your local school board member. Like the drug problem at Stevenson, this is a national conversation years too late in coming, and a national shame that years of inaction and silence will only worsen.

It starts here. It starts today. It starts with you. Because kids are not mouthpieces.