A generation ago, Justice William Brennan warned the nation about the perils of heavy-handed school censorship.
“[U]nthinking contempt for individual rights is intolerable from any state official,” the Supreme Court’s foremost First Amendment advocate admonished. “It is particularly insidious from one to whom the public entrusts the task of inculcating in its youth an appreciation for the cherished democratic liberties that our Constitution guarantees.
The ruling from which Justice Brennan was dissenting — Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlemier — has now been the law of the land for 25 years. The toll that it has exacted on the quality of public education came into sharp focus last fall, when scholars from the fields of law, civics, journalism and education gathered at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for a two-day symposium, “One Generation Under Hazelwood.”
The video from the entire symposium is online and is well worth a viewing, but there were two signature moments that crystallized what Hazelwood means and why it’s essential to continue talking about it.
The first came from David Cuillier, director of the journalism school at the University of Arizona, who explained how his college felt compelled to require what is essentially a “remedial First Amendment 101” course after seeing the civically damaged condition in which students are arriving.
“I have been so alarmed by the kinds of students coming into our college programs who are completely unprepared for what journalism is about,” Cuillier said. “They think it’s OK to be told what to print and what not to print. They don’t challenge authority like they should. We have to reprogram them. We have to retrain them.”
The second came from a school district lawyer, whose view of Hazelwood censorship authority left audience members gasping. Courts cannot require schools to publish “controversial” material in student newspapers, he explained, because such an order would violate the schools’ First Amendment rights.
This is, of course, nonsense. Government agencies do not have “rights,” they have limitations. The idea that the Constitution exists to protect the “rights” of government agencies against their most helpless citizens should be consigned to the realm of “flat earthers.” But it is not.
That, ultimately, is Hazelwood’s legacy. It has convinced administrators that they have not just the ability to censor but the “right” to do so. And it has fed the mentality that the primary goal of the public school system is getting through a day without controversy.
This is why the SPLC is launching a campaign to “cure” Hazelwood, a sickness that keeps young people from learning to their fullest potential. We hope you’ll visit www.curehazelwood.org and join the race for the cure. Because the last 25 years of Hazelwood should be the last 25 years of Hazelwood.
— Frank LoMonte, SPLC executive director