High school censorship calls soar in '97

VIRGINIA — Censorship calls to the Student Press Law Center from high school journalists rose by more than a third last year. According to the Center, 304 high school student journalists or their advisers contacted them in 1997 for legal help concerning a censorship matter. That number tops the previous high of 221 recorded during 1996.

“This increase is frightening, but not surprising. In an ever-growing number of high schools, censorship of the student media has simply become standard operating procedure,” said SPLC Executive Director Mark Goodman. Goodman attributes most of the rise to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1988 decision in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, which significantly reduced the First Amendment protections available to students working on many school-sponsored high school publications.

“If government officials are given the power to censor, history has shown that sooner or later they will exercise that power to serve their own agenda. Student free expression and quality scholastic journalism are just the latest casualties.” Goodman said.

Given Hazelwood1s impact at the high school level, Goodman said he is astonished that a court would even consider extending the decision to cover colleges, something now being threatened in a case involving Kentucky State University. (See COLLEGE, page 4.)

“As so many of the calls to the SPLC illustrate, Hazelwood has essentially gutted the First Amendment in many of America1s high schools,” Goodman said. “I hope that 10 years from now we aren1t saying the same thing about free speech on our college and university campuses.”

Including the growing number of censorship calls, the SPLC staff responded to 1,588 requests from student journalists and their advisers seeking legal help in 1997, up 10 percent from the 1,443 requests received in 1996. In addition, the Center responded to 607 requests from individuals seeking information only or from the media seeking comment on student press issues.

For the first time ever, the SPLC received more questions (710) from public high school students than any other group. Questions about censorship topped the list of high school concerns (41 percent), followed by questions about libel/privacy law (27 percent) and copyright law (14 percent).

Requests for legal help from college student media were up, from 711 in 1996 to 795 last year. Questions regarding censorship (32 percent), public access to records and meetings (27 percent) and libel/privacy law (23 percent) were most on the mind of the college media.

Legal assistance ranged from providing information over the telephone to drafting opinion letters to making referrals to local attorneys who are members of the Student Press Law Center1s pro bono Attorney Referral Network.

Calls to the Student Press Law Center came from all 50 states, the District of Columbia and eight foreign countries. Callers from California (190 calls), New York (148), Texas (148), Illinois (121), Virginia (94), New Jersey (87), Ohio (84), Michigan (83), Indiana (82) and Pennsylvania (77) topped the list.

Since 1974, the Student Press Law Center has been the only national legal assistance agency and information clearinghouse devoted exclusively to protecting and educating the student press about their freedom of expression and freedom of information rights. The SPLC is a 501©(3) nonprofit organization. All legal services are provided to the student media free of charge.

Fall 1998, reports