Press Freedom and Student Journalism


By Freedom Forum

Does the First Amendment protect student journalists?

It depends, but in many cases public school officials can legally censor a school-sponsored publication like a newspaper or yearbook.

If the school has by policy or practice opened the publication to a free exchange of ideas, the publication may be a public forum and the school has less authority to censor content. However, most school newspapers are not public forums since they are often part of a class or extracurricular activity with significant guidance, oversight or funding by schools.

Because of a 1988 Supreme Court decision, school officials generally have broad leeway to censor school-sponsored publications. In Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, the high court ruled that school officials can censor school-sponsored publications if they have a reasonable educational reason for censoring the material.

Schools can censor student speech for a wide range of educational reasons like:

  • Poor research, writing or grammar.
  • Inappropriate content.
  • Messages that might associate the school with a particular political view.

Since the ruling, several states have passed laws to provide more protection for student journalists’ rights.

The Spectrum’s story

Student journalists for The Spectrum planned two big features for the final newspaper of the school year at Hazelwood (Mo.) East High School – one on divorce, the other on teen pregnancy. In 1983, those subjects were taboo.

The school principal pulled the stories from the paper. Editor Cathy Kuhlmeier and reporters Leslie Smart and Leanne Tippett believed their First Amendment rights to free speech and press were violated and petitioned the court for help.

The Supreme Court decided that the principal can control student speech that is school-sponsored, such as newspapers and plays.

See more stories of students standing up for their rights – including a group of student journalists who got creative to avoid school censorship – in the First Amendment and You(th) exhibit, on display at Reagan National and Dulles International airports.

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