Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier 484 U.S. 260 (1988)

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In tinker v. des moines independent school district (1969) the Supreme Court held that school officials could not interfere with students' speech unless that speech threatened substantial disorder, a material disruption of the educational program, or invasion of the rights of others. The Kuhlmeier decision continues the erosion of Tinker that had begun in the bethel school district v. fraser (1986).

A journalism class in a Missouri public high school wrote and edited the school newspaper. The school's principal, after reviewing proofs, ordered the deletion of two of the paper's projected six pages to avoid publication of two articles: one detailing the experiences of three pregnant students and another on students' feelings about their parents' divorces. The first story, the principal said, was inappropriate for the school's younger students; the second contained derogatory comments by a named student about her father. With no notice to the student writers or editors, the paper was printed with the offending pages deleted. Three of the students brought suit against school officials, seeking a declaratory judgment that the censorship violated their first amendment rights. They lost in the federal district court, but prevailed in the court of appeals on the theory of the Tinker decision. The Supreme Court reversed, 5–3.

Justice byron r. white, for the Court, first concluded that the paper was not a public forum because its pages had not been opened up to students generally or to any other segment of the general public. He distinguished Tinker in two main ways. First, the school could legitimately seek to inculcate the community's values, and thus could act to avoid the inference that it endorsed the conduct that led to student pregnancy. Second, the principal's control over the school paper was a series of decisions about the educational content of the journalism curriculum, and courts must pay deference to educators in such matters. Thus, the proper standard of review was not strict scrutiny but one of "reasonableness"—a standard satisfied by the principal's decision.

For the three dissenters, Justice william j. brennan, argued that the majority's "reasonableness" test effectively abandoned the much more demanding standards of Tinker. Surely some members of the Kuhlmeier majority would be satisfied to paint Tinker into a corner where its value as a precedent would be severely limited. Whether the Court will complete this process of doctrinal retrenchment remains to be seen.

Kenneth L. Karst

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Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier 484 U.S. 260 (1988)

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