This Day In Supreme Court History—January 13, 1988

On this day in 1988, the Court decided Hazelwood School District v. Cathy Kuhlmeier, holding that students do not have a First Amendment right to publish a school newspaper free from school administrator editorial oversight.

The Spectrum, the school newspaper of Hazelwood East High School in Missouri, was written and edited by students. In May 1983, the school principal ordered the editors to withhold articles dealing with divorce and teenage pregnancy that he found inappropriate. Cathy Kuhlmeier and two other students sued the school district. The district court held that the school district had not violated the First Amendment. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed.

In its 5 to 3 decision, the Supreme Court held that the students’ First Amendment rights were not violated. The majority opinion, written by Justice Byron White, gave the following reasons for the decision. First, the student newspaper was not a public forum. The school administrators had never demonstrated an intent to open it to “indiscriminate use” by student reporters and editors, or by the student body. Rather, they used the paper “as a supervised learning experience for journalism students.” Thus, school officials could regulate the contents of the paper “in any reasonable manner.” Second, educators do not violate the First Amendment by exercising editorial control over the style and content of student speech in school-sponsored activities when “their actions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.” And third, in this case, the principal’s editorial deletions were reasonable.

In dissent, Justice Brennan stated that the principal had “violated the First Amendment’s prohibitions against censorship of any student expression that neither disrupts classwork nor invades the rights of others, and against any censorship that is not narrowly tailored to serve its purpose.” He wondered whether the reasoning of the majority’s opinion meant that administrators could censor a student who says “socialism is good” in a political science class or a “gossip who sits in the student commons swapping stories of sexual escapade.” He warned that recognizing the educator’s “undeniable, and undeniably vital, mandate to inculcate moral and political values” not be understood as “a general warrant to act as ‘thought police’ stifling discussion of all but state-approved topics and advocacy of all but the official position.”

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