Fighting censorship after Hazelwood

For those student publications that are affected by the HazelwoodSchool District v. Kuhlmeier decision, First Amendment protectionshave been significantly reduced. But there are still avenues for fightingthe censorship that interferes with your ability to produce quality publicationsand to become well-trained student journalists. What follows are some pointerson where students and advisers should go from here.

Do not self-censor

Within days of the Supreme court’s decision, the Student Press LawCenter had calls from students and advisers telling us they were pullingstories about teen pregnancy, AIDS and other timely topics because theydid not know how their principal would react to them. That response isexactly what many feared a pro-censorship decision might bring, a true”chilling effect.” Nevertheless, it is precisely the wrong response.

If your publication has prepared a well-written, accurate storyon any topic of interest to you and your readers, do not drop it becauseof Hazelwood. Now, more than ever, you should strive to producethe highest quality work you can. But when you have done that, you shouldnot hesitate to publish it. If your principal or some other school officialwants to censor, let them do it. Do not try to guess what they might notlike and censor yourselves as a result. If you head down the road of self-censorship,it will not be long until your publication is as superficial and unchallengingas many student publications were a generation ago. It is up to you notto let that happen.

Establish your publication as a forum for student expressionby policy

The Hazelwood decision said that student publicationsthat are public forums for student expression have much greater First Amendmentprotection than those that are not. If a policy is not already in existencefor your school, push your principal, superintendent or school board toadopt one protecting the right of student journalists to make their owncontent decisions. Many schools across the country have adopted such policiesover the years, and those that have find that high quality publicationsand students with a greater sense of responsibility for their work result.School districts from rural Colorado to urban Miami have set fine examples.

The Student Press Law Center’s ModelGuidelines for Student Publications have since 1978 been a patternfor schools of all sizes. The Model Guidelines set reasonable limitationson the material that students can include in their publications. Plus,they protect the rights of students to be free from arbitrary censorshipby school officials. Gather the support of students, teachers, parentsand community members, and urge your school to adopt a policy that protectspress freedoms for students.

Establish your publication as a forum for student expressionby practice

If you don’t think that your school officials will agree to a policythat supports student press freedom, try to establish that by practiceyour publications are serving as forums. Include a statement in your masthead,staff box or colophon that says your publication is “a public forum forstudent expression — student editors make all content decisions.” Adopta similar statement in your editorial policy and have your editor and advisersign and date it.

If you are censored, appeal

If a school administrator raises objections to a story, graphic oradvertisement you want to publish, be prepared to respond. Ask for specificobjections to the material in question, in writing if possible. If theproblem is poor grammar or style, see if you can improve your work. Ifthe official complains of factual inaccuracies, check the facts again andshow why you believe the story to be true. If the complaint is simply the”sensitive” nature of the topic, make sure the material does not fall intoone of the areas of ” unprotected” speech such as libel. Be willing tosit down with your administrator and talk with a cool head about why thematerial in question is important for your student publication.

If the day comes when, despite all your efforts, your principaltells you not to run that story about date rape or drug abuse in your publication,do not accept that decision as the last word. Remember, a principal canonly censor if a school district allows him or her to do so. Your schooldistrict might not. If you are convinced that the principal’s concernsare not valid and no changes in the story are appropriate, appeal the principal’sdecision to the school superintendent. Present the superintendent withyour well thought-out reasons why the story should run. If the superintendentsides with the principal, go to the school board. Ultimately, the schoolboard has the final decision on what your school officials will be allowedto censor. Your job is to persuade them why your reasons for running thestory in question are good ones. If you accept a principal’s decision asfinal, you may be giving up too early.

Use public pressure to your advantage

If you are appealing a decision by school officials to censor or tryingto get your school district to adopt a free expression policy, get as manypeople on your side as you can. Drama and debate groups as well as librariansmight be especially interested in joining in this effort. The support ofyour fellow students, faculty members and parents can have a big influence.Petitions, armbands and buttons all might be appropriate measures whentalking about the problem gets no results.

Also, do not be afraid to go to the local media with your situation.They can help publicize your problem and let the community know how seriousyou are about your student publications and they may offer editorial support.Call the local newspaper or television station and tell them that yourstory on AIDS was censored from your student newspaper and that you areappealing the decision to the school board. The chances are good that themedia will take notice and so will your school board. Most schools don’twant to be known as censors. Many will listen more carefully to your concernsif they know the risk of being so labeled exists.

At the same time, if your school officials do not censor, rewardthem for that. Write an editorial in your own publications and at yearend give them an award for their support and commitment to high qualitystudent journalism and the free press rights of students. Be sure to letthe local media know about your award. Tell them how lucky you are notto be students at Hazelwood East High School. If you reinforce the positivebehavior of your school officials, you are much more likely to see themrepeating it.

Call the Student Press Law Center or some other legal authorityon student press issues if you are censored

The SPLC can help you make a plan of action for fighting censorshipin your school and can help explain what your rights are under state lawas well as the First Amendment. If your rights have been infringed andyou want to go to court to defend them, the Center can also help you findan attorney in your area that will be willing to offer assistance.

Remember alternative publications

If all the public pressure you can bring to bear does not stop thecensorship, remember that you still have the right to create and distributeyour own alternative (sometimes called “underground”) publications. Alternativepublications are not an ideal answer because they seldom provide the importanttraining offered by a professional journalism adviser. But if you are notallowed to express your views or write about the topics that you thinkare important anywhere else, an alternative publication may be your lastresort.

An alternative publication does not have to be expensive to produce.If a small student group is willing to pool money, they can type one upat home or in the public library and photocopy it for pennies a copy. Italso may be possible to get money through advertising from members of thecommunity who are supportive of your initiative and perseverance.

Do not take an alternative publication lightly. If you use sucha publication only to make fun of people or to explore the boundaries ofgood taste, you will likely find yourself with minimal support, only reinforcingthe notion that the school should never give students control of theirschool-sponsored publications. But with an alternative publication, thecontent decisions, for better or worse, will be yours.

Make a push for legislation in your state to protect studentfree press rights

Many state legislatures have already begun to consider bills to undowhat the Supreme Court has done in Hazelwood on a state level.Your state could pass similar protections for students, but it will onlydo so if it gets an indication of support from students, teachers, parentsor other concerned individuals. If you would like to see such a law existin your state, contact your state scholastic press association or a statelegislator.

As one commentator has said, the Supreme Court in Hazelwood“mayhave unintentionally taught America’s youth an important lesson about theprecariousness of our constitutional freedoms. Even in America…freedomof the press cannot be taken for granted.” A sad and cynical lesson perhaps,but one that if taken to heart can prompt us all to fight to make studentjournalism’s enormous potential a reality.