Stop Censoring Students – Sponsorship, Spectrum, and Speech


Grace Morton, Website Editor

This July, I had the privilege to attend a two week class at Harvard University called Constitutional Law, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. For the final, we wrote a paper arguing for or against the Supreme Court’s decision on a precedent-setting case. I chose to argue for the dissent in the Hazelwood School District v. Kulhmeier case, greatly influenced by my work on The Claw over the last two years. This case decided whether student journalists are entitled to the same freedom of press as adult journalists. If you’d like to learn more about this case, you can visit the case summary provided by the U.S. Federal Courts, or read the opinions issued by the Supreme Court here.


In spring of 1983, two pages were removed from Hazelwood East High School’s student newspaper, Spectrum. The pages contained stories about teen pregnancy and the effects of divorced parents, stories that the principal considered inappropriate for distribution. He argued that the anonymous students in the articles could be identified through context and that these topics would be a poor influence to younger students. The principal and his superiors removed the two pages containing the stories, removing six other stories on those pages as a result. Former students who worked on Spectrum sued the school district for violation of their first amendment rights, and by October of the same year, the case was brought to the Supreme Court.

Principal Reynolds of Hazelwood High School holds an issue of Spectrum

In a 5-3 vote, the Court held that student publications are not granted the same rights as other newspapers, as they are sponsored by the school. They ruled that schools have the right to limit sensitive content as long as the censorship has a “valid educational purpose” (Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier). They reasoned that the school wasn’t silencing the students, just not actively promoting their speech, which was permissible when speech is false, dangerous, regarding a sensitive topic, or opposing the mission of the school. Three justices dissented, arguing that the newspaper was a forum for expression and exploration of student’s First Amendment rights. They claimed that while schools shouldn’t have to sponsor all student expression, objections should be against articles that are badly written, badly researched, or prejudiced. Censorship of student speech should not be used to “shield the audience from difficult subjects or dissociate the sponsor from the expression” (Hazelwood, Justice Brennan, dissenting).

I strongly agree with the dissenting opinion on this case. I see no reason why students shouldn’t have been granted the same rights as professional journalists in this scenario. There is no evidence to indicate that the articles were badly written or prejudiced in any way, and their publication did not disrupt others’ learning. This newspaper allowed students to speak honestly about their experiences and to bring important issues into the spotlight, just as adult journalists do. Students were exploring their constitutional rights to freedom of speech and practicing skills they would need if they chose to work for the press. The school was beyond its authority when it removed the pages, and the court was ignoring past precedents when it decreed that it was constitutional to restrict the student’s speech.

Justice Brennan’s portrait, painted by Paul C. Burns for the Supreme Court collection.

The issues covered in Spectrum were issues that were affecting teenagers in the Hazelwood East High School community. Students should not be denied access to information that could be beneficial to them, even and especially if adults think they are too young to read about things like teen pregnancy and divorce. These were not easy topics in 1987. Articles such as the ones removed from Spectrum could have started discussions, leading to consciousness of sensitive issues. “A school must be able to set high standards for the student speech that is disseminated under its auspices”, and I believe the highest standard is speech that promotes discussion and education about relevant and important topics (Hazelwood). The highest standard is sharing information in a respectful and perhaps insightful manner in order to educate, or to form a connection between the subject and the reader. The two articles removed could have let students know that others were in similar situation and had similar feelings. Taking away students’ rights of expression is taking away students’ ability to relate to each other and discuss issues that are important to them.

I have stated that I believe the articles removed from Spectrum had great value. But value alone does not necessarily mean that it is constitutionally protected. In Tinker v. Des Moines, Justice Fortas writes in the opinion for the court, “the prohibition of expression of one particular opinion, at least without evidence that it is necessary to avoid material and substantial interference with schoolwork or discipline, is not constitutionally permissible”. According to this statement, there would have to be some proof that the articles in question had disrupted the school environment in a significant way. As the articles were never published, any “interference with schoolwork or discipline” was purely speculative. Tinker is regarded as one of the most important cases regarding students’ freedom of speech, and the precedent it set should be respected.

Mary Beth Tinker and her brother John holding the armbands that got them suspended. They were protesting the Vietnam war and mourning soldiers killed in combat.

Then there is the issue of the defense’s flawed argument. It seems to operate under the assumption that high school students are so naive that they cannot be held accountable for their actions. First, there is the issue of the students’ anonymity. All students were referred to by false names or were otherwise anonymous by the final edition of the paper, and though it may have been possible to work out who they were through context, I believe that the students would have considered that fact before talking to a journalist about something so personal. Second, there is the fact that one of the articles were removed because the principal thought that subjects like birth control and sexual activity would be inappropriate for younger students. “Younger students” as used here presumably refers to 9th graders, and possibly younger siblings of high schoolers. Still, these are likely students in their early teens. If anything, that is the best time for kids to be reading about teen pregnancy. They will understand what is going on with their older peers, and may be more able to avoid getting into that situation themselves.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the court’s ruling discourages the next generation of journalists from writing about issues that are important to them. Journalism is intrinsic to creating a society of informed citizens and responsible participants in our nation’s democracy. Without news about major events and politics within our country, our system would not function, for “without an informed and free press there cannot be an enlightened people”(New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, Justice Stewart, concurring). We need to teach students to pay attention to what is going on in their community so that they are prepared to be attentive within a national or global community,  and thus become educated participants in our nation’s democracy.

Student journalists with their newspaper

“Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press”. This is the clause, from Amendment I of the Constitution, that was denied to the student journalists. It is the first right granted to the citizens of America in the Bill of Rights, arguably because it is the most fundamental right in maintaining a functional republic. It ensures that all people have the right to speak and read about issues in their community and in their nation. It ensures that the people’s voices are heard by their peers and their representatives. It encourages transparency of the government. This one clause allows for millions of different beliefs, ideologies, opinions and perspectives. To take these rights away from student journalists implies that their freedoms are lesser and devalues their hard work. The Constitution applies to all people in this country, not just adults. Censoring Spectrum should not have been allowed.  


Works Cited

“Facts and Case Summary – Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier.” United States Courts. Administrative

Office of the U.S. Courts. Web. 20 July 2017.

Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier. 484 U.S. 620. Supreme Court of the United States.


New York Times Company v. United States. 403 U.S. 713. Supreme Court of the United States.

  1. O’Brien, David M. Constitutional Law, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. 10th ed., W.W. Norton & Company, 2017.

Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District. 939 U.S. 503. Supreme Court of

the United States. 1969. O’Brien, David M. Constitutional Law, Civil Rights and Civil

Liberties. 10th ed., W.W. Norton & Company, 2017.

U.S. Constitution. Amend. I.