October 2016 Podcast: Meet the OG in the fight for student press freedom

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By Student Press Law Center

Frank LoMonte:

Hi, everybody, and welcome to another edition of the Student Press Law Center’s monthly podcast. On the SPLC podcast we run down news and ideas about the law governing the rights of student journalists in high schools and colleges. The Student Press Law Center is an advocate for student First Amendment rights. We’re online at SPLC.org, on Twitter @SPLC, and the easiest way to connect with us is by email: splc@splc.org.

This is a kind of first for the SPLC’s podcast, a remote broadcast. We don’t normally get to go out of the office, but today it happens to be a special day at Stony Brook University on Long Island. The Stony Brook hosted a conference called, “Icons of Freedom” that focused on the First Amendment in schools and one of their featured speakers is Cathy Kuhlmeier Frey.

She’s the Kuhlmeier in the Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier 1988 US Supreme Court Decision that’s so well known as the decision that diminished the First Amendment protection of student rights in curricular settings. The Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier decision stands for the proposition that schools may freely censor student speech in a curricular student publication so long as they can point to what’s called a “legitimate pedagogical reason” for the censorship.

That ruling has stood for 28 years, but there’s some progress to report that more and more states are passing what are known as New Voices or anti-Hazelwood statutes, and Cathy Kuhlmeier Frey has actually testified in both North Dakota and in Missouri in support of those reforms. And there’s some progress, since 2015, North Dakota, Maryland, and Illinois have each passed a statute that restores students rights to the level they enjoyed before the Hazelwood ruling.

So I’m so delighted to have Cathy Kuhlmeier Frey joining us to record this podcast and thanks for all of your efforts in support of the New Voices movement.

Cathy Kuhlmeier Frey:

Thank you, Frank, for everything that you do for it.


Well, so , a lot of people are familiar with the back-story to Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeiere. It involved the censorship of the high school student newspaper in the suburbs of St. Louis where you were among the editors. The editors put together a double-page spread about varying social issues that were on the minds of students and of importance in their lives, and that became the lightening rod for censorship by the principal.

I’ve heard you give some presentations about the backstory to that case and I think it’s fascinating to know a little bit more about how the students came up with those story ideas that resulted in the school’s censorship, and where those ideas came from and what you were trying to accomplish in publishing those stories.


Our paper had traditionally been a type of paper where it talked about just more of a fluff-type story. And we wanted to come back and do something that was related to issues that we could identify in our school. We – under the direction of our adviser, Mr. Sturgis – we went back to the school morgue and we found different topics that they had maybe tossed around and didn’t publish, and then we finally came across a publication of the paper five years previously underneath a different principal, Dr. Negry, where they identified the problems of teenagers.

We thought that was probably the best choice for what we wanted to do because it was more hard-hitting and it was still relevant in our school. The stories that we chose to expand on and update, now five years later, were teen pregnancy, divorce, marriage, and runaways. And we chose those topics because back in the 1980s in Hazelwood East High School we had a pregnancy problem. In a large populated school, about 2,500, there were at least 50 girls in the school that were pregnant and we had a daycare.

And so we related to that and we chose to talk to the three different, three of the different girls that had very different situations and bring to light their stories. So that we could not identify who those girls were for the general population of the school or the administration, we inserted a blurb that was supposed to run that stated that we would be changing their names because we wanted to protect their identities.

We also went one step further. Once we got their stories and their quotes and typed everything up, we sent those quotes home with them and said, “Here, please review this with your parents, if everything is accurate, we’ve done our job, sign off on it as well as your parents.” We wanted to be that responsible journalist.

In the stories related to runaways, we gave hotline numbers in hopes that we could reach out to someone that was potentially considering running away and help someone. At that point in time in my life I was, I worked for Target. We had a student within our high school population that ran away and for whatever reason chose to stop at Target on his way out of town and took his own life in the restroom of Target.

And I think that one for me is very hard to accept the fact that we weren’t able to publish those articles because on the slim chance that maybe Reggie read that article, maybe Reggie would still be here today, and I have a hard time accepting that. That we weren’t able to help out and reach someone.

We also talked about the problems of divorce in high school and how that affected students. I was a student of a divorced family, and I struggled with that myself because my father was an alcoholic when I was in high school and I felt like I was very isolated and alone.

But we wanted to reach out to the kids in our school and tell them you’re not the only ones dealing with these type of problems. They reach much farther than what you ever imagined, and we wanted to show them that things aren’t as bad as you may feel. You’re not alone in it and we wanted to just send that message. Times can be very lonely and frightening as a teenager, and we wanted to make those people feel like, you know, there are others out there that are like you.


I think that’s really important for people to hear that backstory because so often the skeptics and the critics of journalism, the people who are responsible for the censorship will assume that when a student wants to write about a sensitive social issue, that they’re being sensationalistic. That they’re trying to create controversy. And in fact so often we find at the Student Press Law Center that people are trying to draw attention to a social problem for purposes of mobilizing the adult community to address it and solve it.

It is never the case that students want to write about drugs or pregnancy or gun violence because they’re hoping to promote and encourage more of that behavior. It is always the case that they’re writing about it because they’re hoping that people in the adult world, parents, school leaders, people in the community, will see that story as their wakeup call.

And so often, too, just as with your runaway story, they’re trying to reach out to kids in that school community who feel somehow marginalized or isolated and to give those kids a voice. And so when people ask, “Well, why is it valuable to let students publish stories about sensitive social issues?” I think you’ve encapsulated why it’s important. You’re giving voice to people who are struggling and maybe feel lonely in that struggle with a family problem or a personal problem and sometimes making them aware of services that might be available to help them.

So, all of that’s an incredibly valuable testament to what student journalism is capable of doing if we let it. The other story I’ve heard you tell, which is typical of the frustrations that student journalists experience, was trying to get a straight answer from your school about why they did what they did. I mean, we know that the end result was that the principal directed that two pages of articles that you just described be removed at the printing plant and that the pages be printed blank. And you’ve gotten over the years a variety of shifting explanations for why. Can you talk about that?


Initially we were told that he objected to a stories, when we went to meet with him to find out why they weren’t there, he initially told us that the stories were too mature for an immature audience. And as we met with him, the question that came to mind for me was “If I’m old enough to get pregnant, shouldn’t I be old enough to read about that?” And he was not very pleased that I, you know, challenged him on that.

And then within the articles that were to run there was a ghosted picture of someone that looked pregnant and he said “I can identify that person,” I said, “Well, then please tell me who it is,” and he named someone, I said “No, that’s not the case, that was me.” It was very easy to make myself look pregnant by wearing a large shirt, folding up another T-shirt underneath it, and sticking it underneath that top shirt. And he said “Well, (incoherent platitudes),” and he did’t really have a good explanation of why to explain that.

Within the next three stories, then, that talked about the different girls’ situations, he said he could also identify them. And I have a hard time believing that to be so, because he was a new principal that year and he was not involved with the population of the school and didn’t know who these girls were. Especially when the number was so significantly high. I find it very hard that he could identify it.

I think it’s more of a case that he was concerned about the fact that there were pregnant girls within Hazelwood East in the ’80s, reaching the community, and that we had a daycare within the school. I think he was trying to hide that fact. But the students could easily see there were babies in the school.


And then later on, at one of the anniversary events, kind of bringing together the participants in this case, you had a chance to interact with him, and he told a different story entirely.


He told a completely different story at that time, and I think everyone in the entire room’s jaw dropped, and there was an audible amazement sound that came form everyone because he told us at that time that he never actually read the articles and it was completely a budgetary issue. We didn’t have the money to publish that. So, he had no choice but to remove the articles. So, years later it still left me wondering, did he read the articles and object or was it really a matter of he never actually read them and he just cut them because of budget? I don’t think i’ll ever know that answer.


And, of course, that goes directly to the basis for the case since the Supreme Court was operating under one set assumptions, was operating under the story as it was told to them at the time by the school’s legal council, but it turns out that, who knows what the real basis. They were working off of the record as it had been developed by the lower courts resulting in the 5-3 ruling in 1988 that produced such a detrimental outcome for students, but to this day no one will ever really know what was the school’s genuine basis.

Which goes really against the animating principle of Hazelwood. The whole purpose of Hazelwood as the Supreme Court wrote the majority opinion was that school’s need this authority over student media for educational purposes and it keeps coming back in the opinion to the educational role of student media and the school’s were told that they could censor so long as they had what’s called the “legitimate pedagogical justification.”

So, everything in Hazelwood revolves around the idea that somehow the censorship was educationally based and that that’s why schools need that authority is to teach best practices in journalism, which of course as all of have experienced is not always the way that authority is used.

So, just taking us forward to the present time, the more things change the more they really do stay the same. So, you actually have a teenager enrolled in high school and participating in journalism right now. What has his experience been?


Well, unfortunately, my son has also been censored. Which floored me how this all came about. they were writing an article that’s traditionally been published for ages within this high school, covering a story called “Assassins” and it is a water gun fight, off-campus held, and it is basically a right of passage for the seniors that they’re allowed to participate in this. And they were just giving the basic facts of who’s able to do it, how it works, where it’s going to be held, and what does it cost. And the adviser chose to not run that article without allowing the kids any dispute over it.

However, in turn, they chose to run an article about the wrestling team and how to rapidly drop weight so they can meet their weight classes. My son came home to me and was very concerned about that this is happening, and I said, “Well, you realize that’s censorship, right?” and he said, “I do,” and, “What do we do about it?”

The following day I made a call to this adviser and I said, “I’d like to talk to you about this. I understand that there’s two sides to every story and I just want to make sure that I’m hearing both sides of it and that my son isn’t over-exaggerating anything,” and she proceeded to tell me that it was none of my business. And I said, “As long as my child is in your class it’s every bit of my business.” And she said, “Well, who do you think you are to know what censorship is?”

And I said, “Might I remind you that under the previous adviser, we had this revelation that I was involved in a First Amendment case over censorship in my high school press and I know quite a bit about it. And she also informed you of that, that I was involved with that, and that I came to talk to the class yearly.” And she said, well it was really not my right and I shouldn’t have anything to do with it, what’s happening in her classroom is her business.

And so, long story short, the lady made several threats against he entire classroom and it was not taken very well. The children in the class were very much afraid of what was happening, and to me, I took that as bullying by the faculty, and I took very much offense to that, besides the fact of the censorship occurring, and I explained to her that perhaps if I brought the Student Press Law Center into it that maybe they could enlighten her as to what the students’ rights were.


And that’s still unresolved and it’s still going on today, as I understand, although it sounds like maybe the administration has stepped in to some extent and ameliorated some of the worst effects of the censorship, but it is sort of remarkable that the Kuhlmeier Rule is being used against a new generation of Kuhlmeiers today. Remarkable and dispiriting that no progress has been made and nothing has been learned in 28 years.

So, going back to your own experience with this case, I know there was a time you’ve said that in your childhood you may have thought yourself about pursuing journalism as a career or at least doing it at the college level. Do you think your experience in high school colored that for you and influenced your path?


I think very much so. My degree is still actually in mass communications and journalism, but after having lived this experience, it’s something that I very much did not want to partake in for the rest of my life, of actually being a journalist. I think that goes back to the poor representation that we had from our attorney, even down to the fact that she didn’t want make the long-distance phone calls to me when I lived out of town so I didn’t know the case was even being heard, and even though my name is attached to this landmark case, I didn’t attend anything. I didn’t know what was happening. So, I find that very hard to swallow. But it’s my hope that I can continue to be active in what’s going on with new laws and attempting to be passed that are the anti-Hazelwood that we can overturn the wrongs that were done and made right.


And just by way of closing, that’s a great place to leave it. What is your message to those legislators of today? Looking back, now, at the 28 years of experience under Hazelwood and the way that publications are running, now, and the kinds of experiences that students like your own son are having. What’s your case to those policy-makers and those legislators as to why they should retreat from the Hazelwood standard.


I think that if we give our students the opportunity to use the brain that God gave them, I believe that they’re very intelligent individuals and they have a lot of good points to make and a lot of intelligent thoughts to express. If we start to stifle that when they’re in high school, where is our journalism career of these children going to go if this is really their desire? What’s going to happen to our civic education? Are we going to even be able to continue to function and have that? It’s got to start some place, and if we can’t start it in the high school, with fostering that desire to become a journalist, where does it come from?


Well, I want to thank Cathy Kuhlmeier Frey, both for spending some time with us today on the Podcast, and also for investing so much of her own time in traveling to places like North Dakota and like the capitol in Missouri to be a public face and witness in favor of the New Voices US campaign.

I want to encourage anybody out there who’s interested in becoming a part of the New Voices movement to reform the laws in their own state to check out that website. It’s NewVoicesUS.com. NewVoicesUS.com. This is a project started by the Student Press Law Center but really powered by volunteers from around the country, including students and there are opportunities for students to get involved blogging about their own censorship experiences, sharing those experiences with a wider audience and otherwise helping to enact curative laws in their states that ameliorate the worst impacts of that Supreme Court ruling.

So, thanks again for being a part of this presentation today and for being such a wonderful champion of student rights. For all of you who are interested in getting more involved in the work of the Student Press Law Center, we encourage you to visit the SPLC.org website where there are numerous resources about protecting your own rights as a student journalists including copies of model publications policies suitable for use t that high school and college level. Always get in touch with us if you have questions or concerns about your own legal rights. We’re available through email, splc@splc.org or by tweeting at us, @SPLC. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll talk to you next month.