Twenty years of Hazelwood





For weeks following the 1988 Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier decision, students at Upper Arlington High School in Ohio wore black armbands to protest the Supreme Court’s ruling giving administrators the right to censor “school-sponsored” speech that interferes with the “basic educational mission” of the school.

Student journalists around the country feared the Hazelwood case — arising from a Missouri principal’s decision to censor newspaper articles about teen pregnancy and divorce — would create a “chilling effect” by making it easer for high schools to censor speech, especially in student publications.

“Hazelwood gave administrators the authority to quiet articles that otherwise would have gone to print,” said Chad Kister, who was a student journalist at Upper Arlington when the Hazelwood decision came down. “This creates bad government and corrupt officials when you don’t have the transparency you need with a free press.”

By wearing the armbands, Kister and other students were copying the students in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District. The 1969 Supreme Court case was the high water mark for student speech rights. The Court ruled that school officials could not ban students from wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War because students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

Under Tinker, student speech can only be censored if administrators show it would be likely to cause a material disruption or invade the rights of others.

Although the Tinker standard still applies to most independent student expression, Hazelwood significantly cut back the protections for school-sponsored outlets such as plays and newspapers. Student journalists and advisers recall how Hazelwood, from the moment it was announced, seemed to give administrators the idea that they could censor articles for just about any reason. Twenty years after Hazelwood, journalism educators fear the decision has encouraged more self-censorship among high school journalists and discouraged them from writing aggressive, in-depth stories in student publications.

Kister said the students of Upper Arlington also wore pins protesting the Hazelwood decision. And the first post-Hazelwood issue of the Upper Arlington student newspaper, the Arlingtonian, featured a full-color photo of the First Amendment burning with the American flag in the background.

The principal “wasn’t too happy” with the paper’s coverage of Hazelwood, Kister said. But it was not until the following fall that the principal attempted to change policies and institute prior review in response to an investigative piece about the local police department.

Months after the Hazelwood decision, the newspaper staff at Upper Arlington investigated claims by students that police officers were violating their Fourth Amendment rights by entering private households without warrants and arresting students for underage drinking. Kister and other staff members set up a “party” to see what actions the police would take. Using a decibel meter to ensure the music played at the party did not violate any noise violations, the student journalists waited for police to arrive, Kister said.

In a 1989 article for The Quill, a Mississippi newspaper, then-Upper Arlington Police Chief Tom Kulp said responding officers heard one student saying he was going to get more beer. When the police reached the front door, it was slightly ajar. Inside, they could see cups filled with “amber-colored” liquid. Kulp said the officers believed the liquid was beer, when really it was apple juice, according to The Quill.

Kister said the police came and entered the house without knocking and without a warrant. Some of the staff members climbed trees with cameras to take shots of the police entering the house.

“They were threatening to arrest me and eventually left,” Kister said.

After the faux party, the newspaper staff wrote a “huge” cover story about it, Kister said.

That’s when the relationship between the principal and the newspaper turned sour.

Then-Principal Ralph A. Johnson told The Quill that the students were practicing unethical journalism by staging the party. He sent a letter home to parents stating that the school disagrees “with the methods that mislead or misrepresented journalistic motives to get a story.”

Johnson could not be located to be interviewed for this article.

Kister said the principal called him into his office and threatened disciplinary action. He demanded to see a copy of the articles before they ran. Kister said he told him the students would refuse to print the newspaper if the principal instituted prior review.

“This is not censorship,” Johnson said in the 1989 article. “It is an issue of counseling and advising.”

Kister, his adviser and the Arlingtonian staff were able to work with the superintendent of Upper Arlington to get a district-wide policy in place making student publications an “open forum” for student expression that stipulated student editors — not school officials — were responsible for determining the paper’s content, Kister said. An open or public forum, either by policy or practice, is not subject to the guidelines established by Hazelwood. Instead, it falls under Tinker’s protections.

Kister and other student journalists and educators in Ohio later lobbied unsuccessfully for a state law that would guarantee free-speech rights to high school students. California passed a similar law before the Hazelwood decision.

“I think it’s important to give student journalists the right to make decisions and exercise their First Amendment rights,” he said.

Six other states —Oregon, Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas and Massachusetts — have since passed anti-Hazelwood legislation guaranteeing free-speech rights to public high school students.

The road to Hazelwood

After the Supreme Court decided Tinker and upheld student journalists’ rights, high school newspapers flourished.
“We saw the best reporting ever in high school papers throughout the ’70s and into the ’80s,” said H.L. Hall, a retired Journalism Education Association president and former newspaper adviser at Kirkwood High School in Missouri.

Chris Zombory, then a student journalist at Lakewood High School in Ohio, said his school never had a problem with censorship. When he graduated from Lakewood in 1985, Hazelwood, which was filed in 1983, was “just gaining steam.” Looking back through his newspaper’s coverage of censorship cases in the years preceding Hazelwood, Zombory said he still can see the pattern he perceived as a student back then.

“Public school officials were trying to clamp down, shut us up, make us march in lines and not cause an embarrassing ruckus,” he said.

Their chance came in January 1988, when the Supreme Court ruled against three students on the staff of the Spectrum newspaper at Hazelwood East High School in Missouri.

The decision ended a struggle between the Spectrum staff and Hazelwood principal Robert Reynolds over what the paper could print in a spring 1983 issue after the Spectrum’s new adviser, Howard Emerson, submitted copies of the paper to Reynolds for review before publication. Reynolds objected to several articles, including ones about teenage pregnancy and divorce, and ordered them removed from the paper. Spectrum staffers called their former adviser, who in turn called Hall, an adviser at a nearby school.

“I suggested he tell the students they should call the Student Press Law Center,” Hall said.

Three students on the newspaper staff — Cathy Kuhlmeier, Leslie Smart and Leanne Tippett — filed a lawsuit against the school, claiming their First Amendment rights were violated. The American Civil Liberties Union represented the students and the Student Press Law Center filed a friend-of-the-court brief on their behalf.

The students lost in federal district court but won in the appeals court. The school board appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court agreed to take the case and heard oral arguments on Oct. 13, 1987; three months later, on Jan. 13, 1988, a sharply divided Court issued its decision upholding the school’s actions.

Initial reactions

High schools across the country felt the aftershock of the Hazelwood decision.
Susan Hathaway Tantillo, an adviser in Illinois, recalls how the principal reacted after the first issue post-Hazelwood came out. He went out to the loading dock to take a look at the just-delivered papers, something he never did until after the Hazelwood decision, she said.

“He let me know the Supreme Court now said it was okay for him to see it before it ‘hit the streets.’ At least that was his interpretation of the decision,” said Tantillo, Wheeling High School’s adviser from 1971-2001 and current JEA awards chairwoman.

But Tantillo said the principal never interfered after that.

In Washington state, Douglas McComas, then-adviser of Wenatchee High School’s newspaper, the Apple Leaf, said the Hazelwood decision, plus some “slightly controversial articles,” prompted administrators to tell McComas he must bring in the paper’s paste-ups to the office for prior approval.

“I simply responded that he could come by the newspaper room any time to look over our shoulders,” McComas said. “I added that if he insisted that we take the paper to the office prior to sending it to the print shop, I would be contacting the Student Press Law Center for legal support. I never heard anymore about it, and he never bothered to come look over our shoulders.”

Kirkwood’s approach

While some administrators may have seen the Court’s ruling as a way to control students’ expression, others took a strong stance in support of students’ rights.
Not far from Hazelwood East was Kirkwood High School’s principal, Franklin McCallie.

Several other school districts near Hazelwood signed a court brief in support of the Hazelwood administration, but McCallie did not.

Hall, Kirkwood’s adviser, said McCallie was a “staunch supporter of student press rights” and that he “had words over the issue more than once” with Reynolds, Hazelwood’s principal.

“There need to be more administrators like McCallie who aren’t paranoid and who don’t think that anything negative that occurs in their school district is a black mark against their school,” Hall said.

McCallie, now retired from his position as Kirkwood principal, said he knew right away that the Hazelwood decision would be terrible for student journalists.

“When the principal says ‘you need to run it by me first,’ then he’ll get less than the best because it’s not the students’ newspaper,” he said. “If you limit what they can write about, it’s not as good of a paper.”

A few years after Hazelwood, in the fall of 1990, McCallie faced a controversy at his school in response to an ad The Kirkwood Call published from Planned Parenthood.

Unknown to McCallie at the time, Planned Parenthood sent the ad out to 80 schools in Missouri and only eight chose to publish the ad in the school newspaper.

The Call ran the ad in the first few issues of the year without any incident. In the October issue, the Planned Parenthood ad ran with an ad from Missouri Right to Life on the facing page, and still no one complained to McCallie.

But in November, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran a front-page story about the Planned Parenthood ad, saying that only eight schools chose to print it and naming only two schools: Kirkwood and Clayton.

“The phones went off the hook,” McCallie said.

Anti-abortion groups and parents called his office to complain, and local Catholic churches collected 1,400 signatures on a petition asking to have the ad removed from future publications.

McCallie said he got a call from his superintendent midway through the week. He wanted to meet with the staff and ask them to remove the ad.

“I said, ‘That’s not us,’” McCallie said. “And he said, ‘You don’t know these anti-abortion groups; they will try to beat us down. We’ll lose our levies. They’ll come to all our meetings.’”

After getting off the phone with the superintendent, McCallie called his wife to tell her that it might be his last day. He said he was so upset he was nearly in tears.

“If the superintendent forced these kids to pull the ad, that is not the mission I signed up for,” he said. “And it does not meet the mission of the district. What are we yielding to?”

McCallie said telling the students to remove the ad would not be in line with what the district was trying to teach the kids to do: make their own decisions.

The following day, McCallie said he went with the superintendent to meet with the students.

“We went during last period and the superintendent introduced the idea that there was nothing wrong with the decision to run it, but now we want you to reconsider,” he said. The superintendent told the students they would have a week to decide and that he knew they would “make the right decision.” But before the deadline was up, public opinion shifted in the students’ favor.

McCallie, in an interview with the Post-Dispatch, said the school was getting a lot of negative feedback. After that, the positive letters and phone calls started rolling in.

“Before that interview, the letters were three-to-one against us. After the statement, they were five-to-one for us,” he said.

The superintendent changed his mind and the students continued to run the ad. McCallie said protesters with picket signs gathered outside of the school board meeting in February, and the school lost several elections to raise the levy in the years that followed because of the ad. By 1993, the school board passed a levy and it seemed voters had moved on.

“We had one of the most exciting, stimulating years in 1991 because of The Kirkwood Call,” McCallie said, recalling the discussions created by the controversial ad.

McCallie said principals and administrators do not give enough credit to student journalists. Students, under the guidance of a trained journalist, are learning to make their own decisions. Taking editorial control from their hands sends the wrong message and does not teach them anything, he said.

“These are 14, 15, 16, 17-year-old kids and we’re telling them you can’t make any decisions; you don’t have the intelligence to make decisions,” McCallie said. “Then after high school, they are going to college, to work, to war — are they going to grow up five minutes after graduation?”

Finding a forum

After a column in the January 2007 edition of The Correspondent mentioned an incident at another district high school — involving a student ejaculating into a container of ranch salad dressing — school administrators at John Hersey High School in Illinois wanted to remove the paper’s statement that it was an “open forum.” The incident was widely reported in the local media before The Correspondent mentioned it.
It is a scenario that high school newspapers across the country operating under the Tinker standard dread.

“Before Hazelwood, we didn’t need a statement in the paper,” said Janet Levin, The Correspondent’s adviser for the past 23 years.

But in a post-Hazelwood world, where the so-called “forum status” of a student publication dictates the amount of First Amendment protection it will receive in a legal battle, student journalists and advisers must constantly be mindful of where they stand.

Student media that can claim “public forum” (or more accurately, “limited public forum”) status, expressed in either a written school policy or followed in practice, can take advantage of the protection against censorship set forth in Tinker. Student media that do not qualify as public forums are subject to administrative censorship under Hazelwood’s less protective standards.

After The Correspondent’s January issue, and other “controversial” articles in district student newspapers, Levin said the district held a workshop for advisers in June. The district’s lawyer also attended the workshop.

Venitia Miles, a district representative, said the workshop was not in response to any particular article. Instead, the district wanted to address questions that had arisen regarding student publications.

“(The lawyer) was bothered by the open forum status,” Levin said. “She thought we were completely ignorant about press law and that she could just come in there and tell us how to run the paper.”

Miles said that the school district has never practiced prior review and they have no intention to do so in the future.

“There’s been some articles that have raised the eyebrows of community members and maybe some administrators, but the administration is not going to start asking to see the articles before publications,” she said. “That’s not what this is about. The administration is very supportive of student publications.”

Miles said the district questioned the newspaper’s forum status not only for student publications, but also for the school grounds and facilities. She said this was to emphasize that outside groups do not have equal access to school property.

Ultimately, Levin and her students decided to remove the words “open forum” from their staff box, while leaving in an explanation that school officials do not review any material before publication and that the student staff determines the content of the paper. Without putting in the exact words, the masthead still describes the paper as a public forum.

The students accompanied the new masthead with a column detailing the reasons the paper would continue to operate as an “open forum.”

Explaining a need to “ensure that the paper’s standards do not decline” or that “the staff’s journalistic values are not compromised,” the August 2007 editorial addresses the question of the public forum status. The newspaper “will function as a public forum, controlling its own content and maintaining its mission to inform,” it says.

Hazelwood’s legacy

Advisers agree that Hazelwood has resulted not only in more censorship from the administration but also self-censorship by student journalists.
“The Hazelwood decision had a somewhat chilling effect on what the students elected to cover,” said Tantillo, a retired adviser from Illinois. “My students always were concerned they not be the first staff ‘to drive the administration to implement prior review.’ They may have chosen not to cover some issues because of this fear.”

The fear of tackling stories that might anger administrators affects the quality of high school journalism.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that newspapers after the Hazelwood case became more conservative and less willing to take on the more controversial, sensitive stories,” said Hall, the former adviser at Kirkwood High School in Missouri.

Hall said Hazelwood made teachers and students more afraid to challenge the administration, which often does not understand the implications of the decision.

“It does not give administrators the right to censor anything they want, but some think it does,” he said. “In fact, if a publication has been operating as a public forum, it doesn’t give the administration the right to censor at all [under Hazelwood].”

Coping strategies

Since the decision, advisers have learned ways to fight and beat censorship resulting from the Hazelwood standards.
Hall said a good editorial statement should prevent censorship.

“However, a heads-up to the administration about a controversial article might be wise,” he said. “That doesn’t mean the administration censors the article, it just means they are made aware of a possible sensitive issue.”

Another suggestion by a former adviser is to practice good journalism.

“If you don’t want to face problems, then do a good job of reporting,” said John Bowen, chairman of JEA’s Scholastic Press Rights Commission and a professor at Kent State’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. “Do a good job of digging, get the facts right.”

Still, even with thorough reporting, administrators might not trust student journalists. Former Illinois advisor Tantillo said she thinks new administrators start censorship policies or practices out of “fear.”

“Many of the problems student journalists across the country are having currently are a result of young, inexperienced administrators who have yet to develop faith in students to make sound decisions,” Tantillo said. “They probably fear for their own job security and worry they may lose their positions if student media in their buildings are allowed to research and write the truth, especially about school-related issues.”

Students can work to calm administrators’ fears by meeting with them to discuss the importance of First Amendment rights for students, suggests Levin.

Levin, who has worked with four principals since the Hazelwood decision, said it is important for students to know press law before they meet with administrators.

When a new principal enters the school, the first thing Levin and her students do is ask if he or she believes in censorship.

“They always say no, but it’s hard in practice,” she said. “It’s my job and the students’ job to explain to the principal about censorship and the role of the student journalist.”

Finally, if administrators do censor an article or attempt to change existing policies, Bowen said students should go to the commercial media and ask the community to support the students.

“Show the public the democratic value in having students make decisions.”


reports, Winter 2007-08