Sheila Raghavendran

First Amendment, second chance

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Last night I watched “Inherit the Wind” performed by Gallatin County High School. The play is a fictionalized version of the Scopes Monkey Trial, which brought John T. Scopes to court because he taught evolution in a Tennessee high school, which was against the law in 1925.

I critiqued the show for the Greater Cincinnati Cappies program, a group of high school theatre students who review plays and musicals in the area. During our pre-show discussion, our discussion mentor explained the background of the play and said something along the lines of, “If you don’t think this theme is relevant today, think about it this way: this debate over creationism and evolution is a matter of free speech. Controversies over free speech still exist — just take a look at the news around the nation of high school newspapers being restricted on what they can print because of administrative concerns.”

Check.


I started doing some research on high school newspapers facing issues of censorship and came across some interesting stories.

From Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court case (information from uscourts.gov):

Students enrolled in the Journalism II class at Hazelwood East High School were responsible for writing and editing the school’s paper The Spectrum. Two of the articles submitted for publication in the final edition of the paper contained stories on divorce and teenage pregnancy. The divorce article featured a story about a girl who blamed her father’s actions for her parents’ divorce. The teenage pregnancy article featured stories in which pregnant students at Hazelwood East shared their experiences.

To ensure their privacy, the girls’ names were changed in the article. The school principal felt that the subjects of these two articles were inappropriate. He concluded that journalistic fairness required that the father in the divorce article be informed of the story and be given an opportunity to comment. He also stated his concerns that simply changing the names of the girls in the teenage pregnancy article may not be sufficient to protect their anonymity and that this topic may not be suitable for the younger students. As a result, he prohibited these articles from being published in the paper.

The U.S. Supreme Court held that the principal’s actions did not violate the students’ free speech rights. The Court noted that the paper was sponsored by the school and, as such, the school had a legitimate interest in preventing the publication of articles that it deemed inappropriate and that might appear to have the imprimatur of the school. Specifically, the Court noted that the paper was not intended as a public forum in which everyone could share views; rather, it was a limited forum for journalism students to write articles pursuant to the requirements of their Journalism II class, and subject to appropriate editing by the school.

From Hosty v. Carter, a 2006 Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals case (information from library.law.smu.edu):

Student journalists of the university newspaper, the Innovator, sued the Governors State University. The student journalists, Margaret Hosty, Jeni Porche and Steven Barba brought suit after Dean Patricia Carter halted printing of the student newspaper until a school official approved the student newspaper’s contents. The Innovator, had published news stories and editorials critical of the administration. Dean Carter’s directive was issued despite a university policy that said the student newspaper staff “will determine content and format of their respective publications without censorship or advance approval.” The student editors at Governors State University in Illinois filed suit against school administrators and the Illinois Attorney General’s office, arguing that their First Amendment rights were no greater than those of teenagers in high school.

In weighing the rights of collegiate press, the Seventh Circuit wrote, “Hazelwood provides our starting point.” The seven-judge majority stated that, “there is no sharp difference between high school and college newspapers.” Reasoning that the same considerations that justify editorial control over high school publications might extend to colleges, the Seventh Circuit suggested that “Hazelwood’s framework applies to subsidized student newspapers at college as well as elementary and secondary schools.”

In reaching its opinion, the court said that a court confronted with an act of student newspaper censorship by a college official must first determine if the publication was a “designated public forum” where students had been given the authority to make the content decisions. The majority said that the fact a publication might be extracurricular was not determinative of its public forum status. Second, the court held that even assuming that the Innovator was a public forum, the dean who censored the publication was entitled to qualified immunity from damages for infringing the students’ rights because she could not have reasonably known that the limitations of the Hazelwood decision did not apply to college and university student publications.

In my research of these cases — and my disappointment in the courts’ rulings — I came across studentpress.org, which knowledgeably shared some of the frustration over the cases ruling against the newspapers and gave some insight (from the article “The Hosty v. Carter decision: What it means” by Mike Hiestand):

For proponents of a free press, the decision (of Hosty v. Carter) is hard to sugarcoat. It changes things. For college journalists in the three states covered by the Seventh Circuit – Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin – the answer to the question “Can they censor?” is no longer always a clear and easy call. Most of the time – at least for now – the answer will still be “no.” If school officials have recognized their student media – either by policy or practice – as “designated public forums” (yes, it gets complicated) and allow student editors to determine their own editorial content, Hazelwood‘s lesser standards still won’t apply. The Seventh Circuit made clear that in a designated public forum student newspaper, “no censorship [is] allowed.”

Currently, almost every public college student newspaper in the country operates like a public forum because up until now it seemed clear that is what the law required. But for students in the Seventh Circuit, Hosty means that college officials may now have a choice. “Public forum” status is not automatic. And as hundreds of examples at the high school level have shown over the past several years, where a student publication is sponsored by the school, administrators can – if they do so carefully – take steps that make it unlikely a court would recognize the publication as a designated public forum.

Further on the studentpress.org post, Hiestand explained how the Student Press Law Center has an increasingly high number of phone calls from student newspapers asking for help and that “Newspapers at many high schools have taken on the look and feel of the school district’s public relations office.” Hiestand further commented that the First Amendment isn’t extremely applicable to many high school situations because of the Hazelwood decision. Hiestand wrote, “I sincerely hope those students will give the First Amendment another shot. Perhaps, at some point in the future, they will see how a free press really can work and how it truly is worth standing up for and defending. The way things are going, we’re going to need every one of them.”

I’ve been raised on the principle of standing up for what I believe in, what I work hard for. I’ve been taught to stick up for my friends, for their work, too. Hiestand is asking to give the First Amendment a second chance. I’m in.

 

Author: sheilaraghavendran

I agree with Ellen, let's be kind to one another.

One thought on “First Amendment, second chance

  1. This is so relevant. Great post, Sheils!

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