Summary of Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier
Citation: 484 U.S. 260
Relevant Facts: Contributors (students) to the Hazelwood East High School newspaper submitted articles for publication on a variety of topics. Prior to publication, the school’s principal found the subject-matter of some articles objectionable and determined that they should not be published. The articles may have been acceptable with changes, but there was insufficient time to allow changes prior to publication. The newspaper was published without the objectionable articles.
Issue: Does a school administrator violate student’s 1st Amendment rights by refusing to publish articles based, in part, on their subject matter?
Holding: Student’s 1st Amendment rights exercised as a part of school-sponsored activities are no co-extensive with their rights elsewhere or the rights of adults generally; Administrators may exercise editorial control over student publications without running afoul of constitutionally protected speech rights.
Reasoning: While students do not check their freedoms at the schoolhouse gates, the sphere of rights within public schools is necessarily smaller than at public forums within the general public. Public schools exist primarily to educate students, not to provide a forum for free expression; and when in conflict, the latter must yield to the former. The newspaper in question in this case was not a public forum within the established meaning of 1st Amendment jurisprudence, but rather a part of the public school curriculum subject to reasonable restraint. Public schools, and administrative decisions, are afforded more latitude in withholding endorsement of some speech when, as here, the forum used is a limited one. While schools must tolerate some forms of student speech and expression, they are not under an affirmative obligation to further or promote any particular idea or form of expression. Finally, the Court concluded that the Principal acted reasonably in determining that publication of the articles in question raised privacy concerns for other students, and rejecting them on that basis.
The Court made four key points. First, students are not entitled to the same level of protected expression within public schools as adults generally. Second, the newspaper here was not a general public forum as the school had not opened its pages to publication on any topic without restriction. Third, a different standard applies for permissibly withholding endorsement of student speech here than to unconstitutionally punishing speech that should be, at a minimum, tolerated. Finally, administrators acted reasonably in light of privacy concerns and were entitled to exercise editorial control in furtherance of valid objectives in furthering the mission of public education.
Dissent: Justice Brennan dissented, arguing that students should be protected from censorship under the same generally applicable guidelines for other speech protections. He found the distinction between tolerating expression and withholding endorsement of little value, as the upshot left students without a forum for expressing their opinions on certain topics. Finally, Justice Brennan urged adoption of standards that would require administrators to demonstrate how publication of articles would actually interfere with school operations rather than citing more generalized concerns about subject-matter.
Conclusion: Public school students are not entitled to the same protection of their rights as they would be in other settings. Administrators may serve as de facto editors for student publications where they have reasonable concerns about both the effect on school operations and the perception of official endorsement of the content in question.