Stevenson High School Baloney

There have been a lot of remarks about "censorship" of the newspaper published by Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire. Much of the argumentation supporting the students, who claim to have been censored by the school administration, refers to a U.S. Supreme Court case called Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier. Oddly, both sides cite the case to support their opposite positions. Some commentators seem not to have read it. Others seem to have only read other people's opinion of the decision. So, I guess in order to decide, you'll have to read it yourself. Then, perhaps, we can have an intelligent conversation.

Here is a quote from the case synopsis: "Held: Respondents' First Amendment rights were not violated." 

A copy of the complete opinion is here. A synopsis is found at the top of the opinion. If you wish to see only the synopsis, go here. For those who don't want to follow links, below are the four clarifying points made in the majority opinion:

(a) First Amendment rights of students in the public schools are not automatically coextensive with the rights of adults in other settings, and must be applied in light of the special characteristics of the school environment. A school need not tolerate student speech that is inconsistent with its basic educational mission, even though the government could not censor similar speech outside the school.

(b) The school newspaper here cannot be characterized as a forum for public expression. School facilities may be deemed to be public forums [p261] only if school authorities have, by policy or by practice, opened the facilities for indiscriminate use by the general public, or by some segment of the public, such as student organizations. If the facilities have instead been reserved for other intended purposes, communicative or otherwise, then no public forum has been created, and school officials may impose reasonable restrictions on the speech of students, teachers, and other members of the school community. The school officials in this case did not deviate from their policy that the newspaper's production was to be part of the educational curriculum and a regular classroom activity under the journalism teacher's control as to almost every aspect of publication. The officials did not evince any intent to open the paper's pages to indiscriminate use by its student reporters and editors, or by the student body generally. Accordingly, school officials were entitled to regulate the paper's contents in any reasonable manner.

(c) The standard for determining when a school may punish student expression that happens to occur on school premises is not the standard for determining when a school may refuse to lend its name and resources to the dissemination of student expression. Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School Dist., 393 U.S. 503, distinguished. Educators do not offend the First Amendment by exercising editorial control over the style and content of student speech in school-sponsored expressive activities, so long as their actions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.

(d) The school principal acted reasonably in this case in requiring the deletion of the pregnancy article, the divorce article, and the other articles that were to appear on the same pages of the newspaper.


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  • I've worked with high schoolers for 40 years...I think any critic has to function within the unique world of HS before they can authentically judge the perennial question about student freedom-of-speech...it's too easy and too delusional to judge looking from the outside in...but then isn't that what we all do, all the time, with all school issues? Never see the same scattershot judgments about OR surgeons or astrophysicists. Wonder why...?

  • I am Dow Jones Newspaper Fund's 1999 National Journalism Teacher of the Year. I have studied scholastic press law for 40 years. When Stevenson HS officials deny their censorship, their credibility tumbles. "Censorship: practice of officially examining books, movies, newspapers, etc., and suppressing unacceptable parts." Stevenson censored the student newspaper again last week, although the administrators claimed it was not "censorship" but rather "helping our students learn appropriate curricular and journalistic standards." But the classroom TEACHER thought it was censorship. The teacher thought the story met journalistic standards. The teacher was told not to discuss the case. If prominent journalism educators and professional journalists largely agree a story meets journalistic standards, how can a superintendent and principal justify their "curriculum rationale" and convince any educated person that their actions are not pure, arbitrary censorship? After all, who are the journalism experts? The school board statement about the latest censorship is riddled with misinformation and disinformation. And the board invoked new, more restrictive policy, denying the paper its previous public forum status. (Some may question the legality of adopting new policy without following proper protocol for policy adoption.) In the latest censored story, a student comments on undesirable side effects she experienced taking prescribed drugs. Seemingly this is a legitimate story with information that can benefit readers. The censor's ax fell. The rationale: the principal can regulate a student newspaper's publication of "private medical information" even if the student and her parents want her voice heard. Unless the principal would also ax a story about a student's courageous fight against cancer, an athlete's injury that sidelined him, or a student who donated her kidney to her mother, then the principal is acting in a totally ARBITRARY way. The Supreme Court's Hazelwood decision does not allow that kind of arbitrary censorship. It requires, for the most part, that censorship decisions must be viewpoint neutral. Stevenson administrators are using their position as state agents to impose THEIR ethics, THEIR biases, THEIR agenda on students who can think for themselves. They are practicing clout instead of collaboration, teaching obedience instead of responsibility, and demoralizing students instead of inspiring them. No educated person wants students to have unbridled control of their newspaper, but no educated person wants the principal to have unchecked power to determine what students may say and hear. The administration has justified their censorship by claiming "in loco parentis" (acting in place of the parent) gives them the authority. But this is what U.S. Supreme Court Justices say about that: "When public school authorities regulate student speech, they act as agents of the State; they do not stand in the shoes of the students' parents. It is dangerous fiction to pretend that parents simply delegate their authority--including their authority to determine what their children may say and hear--to public school authorities." (Morse v. Frederick [2007]. Finally, to you, Dennis Byrne, I challenge you to call the two student editors of "The Statesman" newspaper to learn how administrators have managed their treatment of student journalists. Call the classroom teachers, too. This story goes far beyond the issue of censorship and the student newspaper. This censorship is just one piece of evidence how the learning culture at Stevenson High School is being contaminated by arbitrary suppression instead of being nurtured by democratic enlightenment. Once you learn ALL the facts, Mr. Byrne, I think you will empathize with the students.

  • In reply to RandySwikle:

    Perhaps I didn't make myself clear. I am not judging whether the administrators did or did not make the right call. Nor was I judging the quality of the stories that didn't appear. I am responding to the argument that is made all too easily, i.e. the action of the administrators amounted to some form of unconstitutional censorship.

  • In reply to DennisByrne1:

    Mr Byrne, you are correct: You did not make yourself clear, at least insofar as one issue is concerned. I do not believe it is possible to be "responding to the "argument that is made all too easily, i.e. the action of the administrators amounted to some form of unconstitutional censorship," without also "judging whether the administrators did or did not make the right call." If it wasn't censorship, as you say it wasn't, then I can only conclude that you believe it was the right call. However, the law, like our language, is ever-evolving and responding to the nuance of change. I think a reasonable argument could be made, perhaps in this case, that the key exception on behalf of advocates of the students at Lincolnshire is found at the end of point (c) of the clarifying points by the court's Hazelwood majority: "Educators do not offend the First Amendment by exercising editorial control over the style and content of student speech in school-sponsored expressive activities, so long as their actions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns." Someday, that qualifying clause, "...so long as their actions are reasonable related to legitimate pedagogical concerns," will be revisited and be found to constrain taxpayer-supported public schools from enjoining student journalists. From my point of view and journalistic values, the actual "legitimate pedagogical concerns" that Lincolnshire's brave young students are learning are the opposite of what the school board and the administrators delude themselves into thinking they are teaching.

  • In reply to jrnlsmadvsr:

    You need to think about what you are reading (and writing). There are two separate questions here: (1)Did the school act within its constitutional and legal authority and (2) did the school make the right call by not publishing the contested material?

    I'll try to say it again: I am not addressing (2). I am addressing (1), in that some of those objecting to the school's actions are contesting the school's authority. You cannot logically make the leap that because I think that the school acted within its legitimate powers, that I approved of its decision. Agreeing with (1) does not logically mean that I approve of its decision (2).

    As for the last sentence of (c), you conveniently leave out the preceding sentence and context. Perhaps some day the court will be more specific in defining "legitimate pedagogical concerns," but it hasn't.

  • In reply to DennisByrne1:

    Mr Byrne, you are correct: You did not make yourself clear, at least insofar as one issue is concerned. I do not believe it is possible to be "responding to the argument that is made all too easily, i.e. the action of the administrators amounted to some form of unconstitutional censorship," without also "judging whether the administrators did or did not make the right call." If it wasn't censorship, as you say it wasn't, then I can only conclude that you believe it was the right call. However, the law, like our language, is ever-evolving and responding to the nuance of change. I think a reasonable argument could be made, perhaps in this case, that the key exception on behalf of advocates of the students at Lincolnshire is found at the end of point (c) of the clarifying points by the court's Hazelwood majority: "Educators do not offend the First Amendment by exercising editorial control over the style and content of student speech in school-sponsored expressive activities, so long as their actions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns." Someday, that qualifying clause, "...so long as their actions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns," will be revisited and be found to constrain taxpayer-supported public schools from enjoining student journalists. From my point of view and journalistic values, the actual "legitimate pedagogical concerns" that Lincolnshire's brave young students are learning are the opposite of what the school board and the administrators delude themselves into thinking they are teaching.

  • In reply to DennisByrne1:

    The comparison I like to make is between a high school reporter and a reporter for a major metro newspaper - the high school reporter seems to have a lot more freedom than their commercial counterpart. The publisher has total control over the news content in a commercial paper, but somehow the publisher of the high school paper - the administration and school board - are somehow lesser lights than teenagers when it comes to deciding what news is fit to print.

  • Gentlemen -- ah, the mystical aura of the 1st amendment looms! In principle, who can argue with the symmetrical beauty of its devotion to individual liberty? But in practice -- inside a real- life high school with real-life kids -- the amendment invites some responsibility to match the liberty. I taught history, presented PBS documentaries, and coordinated K-12 curricula for some of the nation's finest schools. So even without such a prestigious award as the Dow Jones, I have come to believe the "fire" in that metaphorical theatre may burn very differently around teens than around professional journalists. While not expert in this particular case, I would say in general that high school administrators have a tougher audience to satisfy. And therefore shouldn't be too easily dismissed as "censors."

  • Dear Jackspatafora,
    I agree with what you write. I suspect you will agree with me when I say censorship cases involving student news media require careful and objective examination of the facts before rendering judgments. Just because an administrator has might doesn't make him/her right. I challenge you to gather information about the situation at Stevenson. The bottom line here is that the way administrators handled things contributed to the alienation that now exists among many of the stakeholders in the school community.

  • In reply to RandySwikle:

    Randy, I defer to you & Dennis about Stevenson in particular. But in general, I have to say my experience working as an administrator at HS like Fenwick, Niles & New Trier, it's a delicate dance. Yes, the students have their rights & values; but then there are the parents & the board whose rights & values factor in. Lets face it -- even the Supreme Court has left us with pretty fragile guideline through the storms that can grow out of the 1st amendment. I simply wish to cast my vote for Responsibility vis-a-vis Rights; and remembering the agonies faced by the administrators vs the ecstasies experienced by the students.

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