It’s a difficult time for the First Amendment in schools. Every week brings another headline of a student suspended by a “zero tolerance” principal for a momentary lapse on social media. And every week brings a story like Katie Maxwell’s. The editor of The Clarion at Chicago-area Riverside Brookfield High School, Katie and her staff came up with a commendable project that provided a rare opportunity for young people to practice the “civic engagement” that schools pretend to care about: An online candidate forum, where candidates for school board would have faced questions directly from students.
But a school superintendent shut them down, insisting — in a revealing admission of fear and distrust — that “too much could go wrong.” When the students published an editorial about the censorship, the school board canceled an awards ceremony to which the newspaper staff had been invited. And board members called for imposing prior review, to prevent any such editorials in the future.
Stories like these impelled the leadership of America’s largest journalism organizations to speak out against the misuse of school authority to censor speech merely to avoid controversy or preserve a positive P.R. image.
Marking the 25th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, which diminished students’ First Amendment protection in school-sponsored media, the boards of the Journalism Education Association and the Association of Educators in Journalism and Mass Communication unanimously asserted that Hazelwood-based censorship is seldom educationally valid at K-12 schools, and never at colleges.
As the groups stated: “[N]o legitimate pedagogical purpose is served by the censorship of student journalism even if it reflects unflatteringly on school policies and programs, candidly discusses sensitive social and political issues, or voices opinions challenging to majority views on matters of public concern.”
This is more than just symbolic. Hazelwood permits censorship if a school can identify a “legitimate educational concern.” Those who know journalism education best have now said — resoundingly — that the reasons most often cited for censorship are educationally illegitimate. Theirs is an expert voice that judges interpreting Hazelwood cannot lightly ignore.
Ultimately, though, schools will not be sued into holding the First Amendment in higher regard. Reform will result from grassroots activism by engaged students like those in reporter Daniel Moore’s story, “Students tap technology to create a new form of youth activism.”
To ignite that activism, First Amendment champions Mary Beth Tinker and Mike Hiestand will start rolling across the country this fall on the “Tinker Tour,” rekindling passion for the First Amendment among the young people whose enthusiasm is America’s most powerful engine for change. They’ve been invited already to speak at the National Constitution Center, the Supreme Court and some 100 schools — and all they need is a bus and some gas money to make it happen. You can support their work, and follow their progress, at www.tinkertourusa.org.
— Frank LoMonte, SPLC executive director