Does legalized censorship make students less likely to criticize school administrators? One study suggests “yes.”

Student newspapers in states with legal protection against censorship publish many more editorials than those in states lacking protective laws, and their editorials are more likely to be critical of school policies.

That’s the takeaway from a recently published study in the Maine Law Review by an attorney and former Iowa school-board member who concludes that “a free student press has far-reaching positive consequences that reverberate through the public schools and beyond.”

Author Tyler Buller’s article is the most comprehensive nationwide look at whether state laws counteracting the Supreme Court’s 1988 ruling in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier actually produce results visible in the choices student editors make.

These “anti-Hazelwood” statutes — a map and links to each statute appear here — give students a measure of freedom to publish the lawful, non-disruptive material of their choice. It’s less than the “real world” freedom afforded The New York Times, but more than the minimal freedom recognized in Hazelwood, which legitimized school censorship of “curricular” student media.

To get a sampling of what students across the country are writing about, Buller studied four years’ worth of issues from 75 student newspapers accessible online.

Among the findings:

  • On average, papers in states with student-rights laws carry twice as many editorials as those in states lacking legal protection, suggesting better-protected students feel freer to voice opinions.
  • In states with free-expression laws, editorials of a “critical” nature were significantly more likely to focus on criticism of school programs or school officials than in states under the Hazelwood level of control.
  • Where student rights are protected only by regulation and not by statute (Washington and Pennsylvania), students make editorial choices resembling those with no legally protected freedom at all.

Buller’s research also yielded the perhaps-unexpected finding that students without censorship protection are far more likely to write editorials criticizing the behavior of fellow students — calling them out for sloppy clothing, laziness or excessive PDA — than are students with legal protection from Hazelwood. This suggests students at censored publications — whether through explicit instructions or anticipatory self-censorship — are more inclined to espouse a “party line” of obedience.

Buller is a believer in the healthful benefits of uncensored student expression. In June 2010, he authored a refreshing article for the American School Board Journal urging school officials to accept the occasional image-protection risks that come with meaningful student journalism in exchange for its educational payoffs.

While supportive of anti-censorship statutes, Buller’s article also identifies shortcomings. The statutes rarely provide clear penalties (only Oregon’s expressly spells out the financial consequences of noncompliance), and generally fail to protect teachers against retaliation, an especially insidious form of censorship. Those that require implementation at the local level, Buller concludes, often go ignored by unsupportive school boards — a finding consistent with a 2013 SPLC study demonstrating that most large school districts in Colorado and Oregon maintain policies noncompliant with their states’ press-freedom laws.

And Buller concludes that even newspapers in censorship-friendly states have value and are worth preserving: “[T]he data provided here shows that the student press lives on, even in the shadow of Hazelwood.”

Read the full article, “The State Response to Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier,” at this link.