Q and A with Hope Johnson

Hazelwood Inspires Illinois Student’s Testimony
The Capitol Dome in Illinois

New Voices: Whenever your teacher taught the class about the history of journalism in America, what case stood out to you the most?

Hope Johnson: Without a doubt, the Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier case. I went home that day and researched the case for hours.

N.V.: Why did that case stand out the most to you?

Johnson: In 1988, a group of high school journalists in Missouri wrote an article on divorce and an article on teen pregnancy for their newspaper. The pregnant teens featured in the article had agreed to be interviewed and featured in the story, but the journalists took extra precaution by changing the names of the students for confidentiality. The principal feared the students could still be identified, but he was more concerned that the content was inappropriate for the younger students.

He made the decision to remove the two pages with the questionable articles without telling the student journalists; they did not know they would be receiving only a four-page paper instead of a six-page until it arrived at the school. The two deleted pages had 5 other stories on them as well. The students sued the principal, and the case reached the Supreme Court, which ruled 5-3 that the principal did not violate the students’ rights.

The case determined that administrators have the right to censor high school publications when the censorship is “reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns”; essentially, if officials feel a story would disrupt the educational setting, they can censor it or remove it entirely from the publication. The broad terminology has since allowed administrators to censor stories that they simply don’t like, or that put them in a bad light.

Associate Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. said in his dissenting opinion:

‘Such unthinking contempt for individual rights is intolerable from any state official. It is particularly insidious from (a school principal) to whom the public entrusts the task of inculcating in its youth an appreciation for the cherished democratic liberties that our constitution guarantees.’

The whole case frustrated me. Furthermore, I thought it was absurd that two articles on teen pregnancy and divorce should decide the fate of all high school publications.

N.V.: Why is protecting high school journalists’ rights so important to you?

Johnson: I truly love journalism. I’ve never felt so passionately about something. Journalists are protectors of the First Amendment, and their jobs are so important. Journalism is necessary to maintain a democratic society. I think that high school journalism programs are extremely important. Countless great journalists discover their love for writing and reporting through their high school programs, and those journalists should have the same freedom of speech that their adult counterparts have.

As journalists, we are taught to question and constructively criticize authority and to report the truth; yet, Hazelwood prevents students from doing just that. It’s ironic that high school journalists are not allowed to do what they are taught. We should be able to speak our minds. The Constitution gave us that right; Hazelwood took it away. Hopefully, the New Voice’s campaign will give it back to every state.

N.V.: What inspired you to be so passionate about House Bill 5902?

Johnson: My passion for House Bill 5902 comes from my stance on censorship. This past year in my English class, we read Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. The novel is focused on a dystopian society that outlaws books and has a force of firemen dedicated to destroying them. Bradbury’s novel is all about censorship and the effect it has on his fictional society. He said in a 2007 interview, ‘There is more than one way to burn a book.’ He was referring to the act of censorship. Ironically, Bradbury’s novel has been banned, censored and redacted in several schools by parents or teaching staff.

After reading Fahrenheit 451, our English instructor had us choose a novel from the Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books in the US and write an essay defending why the novel should be read by high school students. The list includes everything from the Harry Potter series to The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I chose Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, a novel about a victim of rape who stops speaking altogether before finding the courage to speak up. The novel tells the important story of a girl deciding to not allow her past to define her. The story contains little graphic content at all, but parents and educators wrinkle their noses at the powerful, very relevant content.

The whole assignment was an eye-opening experience. I learned that sometimes the most important messages are the ones that are the hardest to say, hear or read. Looking at the 100 most challenged books, I had read most and knew that nearly every one had important substance and a great message. I learned that censorship isn’t helping anyone.

N.V.: What do you hope high school journalists can accomplish now that they are protected?

Johnson: Students can write articles about touchy subjects relevant to their school – drug abuse, violence, pregnancy, gender topics, the list goes on. They also now have the right to criticize a decision made by their school board. Most importantly, they have the right to report the truth. The power of freedom of press and speech never ceases to amaze me. I can only imagine the things they will accomplish.

N.V.:Do you plan to continue to advocate for the First Amendment?

Johnson: Absolutely. I can’t think of anything I’d rather do. I’m a firm believer that the First Amendment is the most important, and I can’t imagine where we would be without it. Through this process, I’ve met several lawyers and state legislatures who specialize in the First Amendment, and their work intrigues me. As a journalism major at the University of Missouri, I can’t wait to find my place in the vast, ever-changing world of journalism and continue to defend our most important right.

Read her story here.