Nation’s leading journalism educators say there’s nothing “legitimate” or “educational” in Hazelwood censorship

Twenty-five years after the U.S. Supreme Court told public schools they could lawfully censor students for any reason “reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns,” the nation’s leading journalism educators are calling for an end to the misuse of that legal authority to stifle discussion of controversial topics.

In a resolution unanimously approved by its board, the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) urges K-12 schools to refrain from abusing the Supreme Court’s 1988 ruling, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, to restrain speech that addresses issues of public concern, including criticism of school policies and conditions.

The resolution further urges the nation’s colleges to forego reliance on Hazelwood entirely, saying that the case was never meant to be about the First Amendment rights of adults in a postsecondary setting.

In Hazelwood, the Supreme Court ruled 5-3 that a Missouri high school did not violate the First Amendment in withholding articles from a student newspaper produced as part of a teacher-supervised class assignment, on the grounds that class-produced newspapers are primarily a teaching tool and not a vehicle for the expression of student views.

The Supreme Court has never spoken to whether the minimal level of Hazelwood protection applies beyond K-12 schools. Lower courts increasingly are applying Hazelwood to the First Amendment claims of college and even graduate-school students, though there is no consensus whether the student media — which generally is produced outside of class time — is subject to the Hazelwood level of institutional control.

The AEJMC represents more than 3,400 college-level journalism and mass communication educators nationwide. It is the most authoritative voice on the standards by which journalism should be taught and learned in college.

The president of the AEJMC, University of Oregon journalism professor Kyu Ho Youm, is a leading authority on the law of press freedom. In a statement on the association’s website, Youm said:

Being keenly aware of this year as the 25thanniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, the AEJMC Board of Directors expresses its increasing concern about the negative impact of the case on freedom of the student press. This is all the more so, when the case has been expanded far enough to apply to the college press over the past 16 years. As the leading national organization of postsecondary journalism and mass communication educators, AEJMC wishes to express its strong stand on the unwarranted abuse of Hazelwood as an easy tool of censorship against student journalists on all levels, including that of colleges and universities.

Beyond symbolic value, the resolution carries potential legal significance in future censorship cases.

Because Hazelwood requires schools to present a justification for censorship that is “legitimate” and is based on “pedagogical” concerns, the consensus of the nation’s journalism professors as to what constitutes a legitimate educational reason for censorship should carry persuasive value with judges. (For example, in one Michigan case, a high school editor successfully demonstrated — using the expert testimony of professional journalists — that Hazelwood did not legitimize censoring an accurate news story just to spare the school the embarrassment of calling attention to a lawsuit.)

The resolution cites “the well-documented misapplication of Hazelwood censorship authority to impede the teaching of professional journalistic values and practices,” examples of which are available on the SPLC’s “Cure Hazelwood” website.