Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier 1988

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Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier 1988

Petitioners: Hazelwood School District, et al.

Respondents: Three former students at Hazelwood East High School

Petitioners' Claim: That Principal Robert E. Reynolds did not violate the freedom of the press when he deleted two pages from Spectrum, a student newspaper.

Chief Lawyer for Petitioners: Robert P. Baine, Jr.

Chief Lawyer for Respondents: Leslie D. Edwards

Justices for the Court: Anthony M. Kennedy, Sandra Day O'Connor, William H. Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia, John Paul Stevens, Byron R. White

Justices Dissenting: Harry A. Blackmun, William J. Brennan, Jr., Thurgood Marshall

Date of Decision: January 13, 1988

Decision: Principal Reynolds did not violate the students' free press rights.

Significance: Public schools may control the contents of student newspapers that are part of classroom education.

Journalism I

During the 1982-1983 school year, students taking a Journalism II class at the Hazelwood East High School ran a student newspaper called Spectrum. It gave the students a chance to practice what they learned in Journalism I. Like most student newspapers, Spectrum featured stories about student life in and out of school. Over 4,500 students, school personnel, and other people in St. Louis County, Missouri, read Spectrum. The May 13, 1983, issue of Spectrum was supposed to contain two controversial articles. One article described the experiences of three students who were pregnant. Spectrum used different names for the three girls to protect their privacy. In the article, the pregnant girls commented on their sexual activity and use or non-use of birth control. The second article described the way divorce affected students at Hazelwood East High School. In the article, one student blamed his father for his parents' divorce. He said his father did not spend enough time with the family, argued about everything, and always was out of town on business or out late playing cards with his friends.

Bad Principles

Principal Robert E. Reynolds reviewed each issue of Spectrum before it was published. When he reviewed the May 13 issue three days before publication, he did not like the articles on pregnancy and divorce. Reynolds thought it was too easy to identify the girls and their boyfriends in the article on pregnancy. He also thought the article would give young students a bad message about casual sex. As for the article on divorce, Principal Reynolds thought it was unfair, and failed to give the father a chance to tell his side of the story. Reynolds did not think there was enough time to rearrange Spectrum to delete the two articles. He decided to delete the entire two pages on which the articles appeared. Those pages contained four other articles that Reynolds would have allowed if there had been time to layout the paper again.

Many students did not learn about Reynolds's decision until after Spectrum was published with two missing pages. Three students, including Kuhlmeier, were furious. They believed Principal Reynolds had violated their freedom of the press. The First Amendment protects this freedom by saying, "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging [limiting] the freedom of . . . the press." Under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, state and local governments, including public schools, must obey the freedom of the press. Kuhlmeier and two other journalism students sued Principal Reynolds and the Hazelwood School District in federal district court. The court ruled in favor of the school, saying Principal Reynolds acted reasonably to protect privacy for the pregnant girls and the divorced father. The Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, however, reversed. It said public schools may not violate the freedom of the press except to protect education.

Principal Reynolds and the Hazelwood School District took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Freedom of the Principal

With a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court reversed and ruled in favor of Principal Reynolds and the school district. Writing for the Court, Justice Byron R. White began by saying students do not shed their free press rights at the schoolhouse gate. The rest of his opinion, however, limited those rights. Justice White said the First Amendment does not protect students in school as much as adults in public. Schools do not have to allow speech that disagrees with the school's educational mission. When a school pays to publish a student newspaper as part of a regular class, it can make sure the newspaper teaches the students what they are supposed to learn about journalism. This means the school may prevent the newspaper from containing poor grammar and bad research. As one purpose of school is to teach students how to be mature members of society, schools also may prevent student newspapers from containing profanity, vulgar language, and material that is inappropriate for young students. A school violates the freedom of the press only when its censorship does not serve the school's educational mission. The Court decided that Principal Reynolds acted reasonably when he deleted two pages from Spectrum. The article on pregnancy failed to protect privacy for the pregnant girls and their boyfriends. The topic of teenage sex was inappropriate for 14-year-old freshmen and their even younger brothers and sisters at home. Principles of good journalism said the students should have given the father a chance to tell his side of the story on divorce. In short, Principal Reynolds was allowed to delete the articles because they disagreed with the principles taught in the journalism classes and the sexual


In 1938, Alma Lovell was convicted for handing out religious pamphlets in the city of Griffin, Georgia. The pamphlets described the religion of Jehovah's Witnesses, a form of Christianity. A city law made it illegal to distribute any written material without getting permission from the city manager. Lovell had not asked for permission before handing out her pamphlets. The U.S Supreme Court reversed Lovell's conviction. It said the United States adopted the freedom of the press to prevent censorship by the government. Censorship happens when the government controls what can and cannot be published and read. The Griffin city law was illegal censorship under the First Amendment. The Court did not reach the same result in Hazelwood. It said students in school have less freedom under the First Amendment than adults in public. Under Hazelwood, a school may censor a student newspaper to make sure the newspaper agrees with the school's educational mission.

values taught by the school system. Because Reynolds did not think he had time to save the other four articles on those two pages, deleting them was reasonable too. Reynolds did not violate the freedom of the press.

Stop the Thought Police

Three justices dissented, meaning they disagreed with the Court's decision. Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., wrote a dissenting opinion. He said the students who published Spectrum in Journalism II expected a civics lesson. Part of that lesson should have been about free press rights under the First Amendment. Only by teaching students those rights can schools prepare them to be members of American society. Brennan said allowing schools to control student newspapers is like allowing the "thought police" to "strangle the free mind at its source."

Suggestions for further reading

Evans, J. Edward. Freedom of the Press. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications Company, 1990.

Farish, Leah. The First Amendment: Freedom of Speech, Religion, and the Press. Hillside, NJ: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1998.

Fuller, Sarah Betsy. Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier: Censorship in School Newspapers. Hillside, NJ: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1998.

Goldman, David J. The Freedom of the Press in America. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications Company, 1967.

Klinker, Philip A. The First Amendment. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Silver Burdett Press, 1991.

Pascoe, Elaine. Freedom of Expression: The Right to Speak Out in America. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1992.

Schwartz, Bernard. Freedom of the Press. New York: Facts on File, 1992.

Steins, Richard. Censorship: How Does It Conflict with Freedom? New York: Twenty-First Century Books, 1995.

Zeinert, Karen. Free Speech: From Newspapers to Music Lyrics. Hillside, NJ: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1995.

Zerman, Melvyn B. Taking on the Press: Constitutional Rights in Conflict. New York: Crowell, 1986.

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