Censorship and gender bias in student media is a persistent problem in today’s society. Articles about women’s issues are often censored, despite writers’ efforts to make their language appealing to all audiences, and having professional and administrative staff supervise their work. In the 1988 Supreme Court case Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, two female high school students choose to write about teen pregnancy and divorce, citing anonymous sources. Both girls made every effort to write an objective and unbiased article, which was then duly censored. The girls were not allowed to express their full first amendment rights due to their principal’s inflexibility and unwillingness to allow them to address current social issues, ostensibly due to privacy concerns for those interviewed in the article. Since this case, freedom of speech and expression has not really been possible for high school students. The Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier case ruled that school newspapers are part of the academic curriculum and are not a public forum, since the school pays for printing and supervises the content. Allowing censorship of articles dealing with rape culture, contraception, racism and others women’s right issues does not benefit the schools’ image academically, and merely reinforces patriarchal norms. The Hazelwood case changed high school journalism and allowed censorship of women’s issues, reinforcing patriarchal norms, religious conservatism, and moralistic attitudes which deemed the content of these articles “obscene” for the community and younger audiences.
According to FirstAmendmentSchools.org, “One issue [in the Hazelwood case] was to include student-written articles about teen pregnancy and the impact of divorce on kids (First Amendment Center, First Amendment Schools: The Five Freedoms – Court Case). The principal feared the subjects in the divorce and teen pregnancy articles were identifiable, and that the topics were inappropriate for younger students due to references to birth control and sexual activity (Supreme Court, “HAZELWOOD SCHOOL DISTRICT v. KUHLMEIER, 1988). The principal at Hazelwood East High School believed the articles about teen pregnancy and divorce were inappropriate for high school students, and blocked their publication. The Supreme Court ruled that the Spectrum, the high school newspaper, was produced as part of a journalism class and thus was not a public forum. Citing Kern and Alexander, the court wrote, “Hence school facilities may be deemed to be public forums only if school authorities have by policy or practice opened those facilities for indiscriminate use by the general public, or by some segment of the public, such as student organizations.” (Alexander, Kern, and M. David Alexander, American Public School Law). The Supreme Court ruled that since schools are non-public forums, they do not allow free speech and expression unless it fits with administrator or school values. Since the Hazelwood decision, the courts have deferred judgement of censorship to school administrators (Student Press Law Center, The Hazelwood Decision and Student Press | Scholastic.com). Restrictive laws regarding high school journalists’ first amendment rights due to their age, gender and location, don’t seem to me to be fair at all.
Students effectively lost their First Amendment rights when high school newspapers were declared to be part of the school curriculum. In the case of Hazelwood, Principal Reynolds’ Catholic values conflicted with the standards of journalism. The Freedom Forum (1994) said, “This article does not reflect the views of the school administration, paper, staff, or any member affiliated with either group.” The disclaimer for the banned article also states that the first two paragraphs were reprinted with permission from Planned Parenthood. Principal Reynolds said he was concerned about privacy, even though anonymous sources were used. He wanted the articles revised, but at the end of the school year, there was not enough time. The school was located in a predominantly Catholic neighborhood and thus, Principal Reynolds felt justified in blocking the article due to his beliefs, and those of the community, around sexual morality. A previous First Amendment case in 1969, Tinker v. De Moines, ruled that schools do not have the right to silence student expression simply because they do not like it. The courts ruled that schools can only use prior restraint and discipline if student expression is disruptive to the school environment, or an invasion of the rights of others.
Evidently, the main reason why these articles were blocked from publication in the Hazelwood case were due to Catholic beliefs regarding sex, sexuality, pregnancy and contraception. The principal believed these articles generated health and welfare concerns for the student body due to their language and content. The Supreme Court maintains that valid reasons to reasonably censor content include if is interfering with school requirements of discipline; student rights; academic propriety; generates health and welfare concerns; or if it is seen as obscene or vulgar. It is important to be aware of the Tinker v. De Moines and Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier cases to understand the ways in which high school journalists effectively lose their first amendment rights and are limited in expressing themselves effectively in critical analysis of current social issues. High school students with journalistic integrity now find themselves having to battle school administrators when defending their first amendment rights regarding press rights, expression rights, prior restraint, and gendered censorship.