Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier: Principal Edit Newspaper (01/13/1988)

Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier

Did the principal’s deletion of the articles violate the students’ rights under the First Amendment?

Argued: 10/13/1987

Decision Date: 01/13/1988

Decision Record: 5-3; no

Justices in Favor: William Brennan, Thurgood Marshall, Harry Blackmun

Justices Dissenting: William Rehnquist, Byron White, John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O’Connor, Antonin Scalia

Effect of the Decision

This case clarifies that school administrators have the right to revise school newspapers if it contains content that may be inappropriate.

In Favor

In representation of the Hazelwood School District, attorney Robert P. Baine argued, “This case come before the Court to resolve the issue of whether a school-sponsored high school newspaper produced and published by a journalism class as a part of the school adopted curriculum under a teacher’s supervision and subject to a principal’s review is a public forum for the purpose of the First Amendment.

During the 1982-1983 school year, the Hazelwood East curriculum included two journalism classes, Journalism I and Journalism II.

And I think that is really the issue that is here before the Court is whether or not the school having adopted a curriculum matter in the teaching of journalism through a textbook and through a classroom setting where the teacher according to the written curriculum attended both the original teaching involving the textbook course which was Journalism I and then in Journalism II continued with that same class.”


Then in opposition, representing Kuhlmeier, attorney Leslie D. Edwards claims, “In 1777 in Philadelphia at the Public Latin School was the first student newspaper called the Students Gazette that we at least have a record of today, ten years before the Constitution, before the First Amendment was added.

Four authors for the purposes of advice both foreign and domestic for the reason of the great want of a weekly newspaper got together as students expressing their opinions, and recording who won certain political elections for the state assembly.

The essence of their ability to put out a student newspaper was their right to communicate with each other, with other students, as well as with other members of the school community.

It is an institution that existed before the First Amendment, and I think that the fact, and Mr. Baine did not mention this at all, that this is a newspaper has to have some effect upon how the Court looks at the issues.”


The majority opinion slip was written by Justice Byron White. He wrote, “We also conclude that Principal Reynolds acted reasonably in requiring the deletion from the May 13 issue of Spectrum of the pregnancy article, the divorce article, and the remaining articles that were to appear on the same pages of the newspaper.

The initial paragraph of the pregnancy article declared that “[a]ll names have been changed to keep the identity of these girls a secret.” The principal concluded that the students’ anonymity was not adequately protected, however, given the other identifying information in the article and the small number of pregnant students at the school. Indeed, a teacher at the school credibly testified that she could positively identify at least one of the girls and possibly all three. It is likely that many students at Hazelwood East would have been at least as successful in identifying the girls. Reynolds therefore could reasonably have feared that the article violated whatever pledge of anonymity had been given to the pregnant students. In addition, he could reasonably have been concerned that the article was not sufficiently sensitive to the privacy interests of the students’ boyfriends and parents, who were discussed in the article but who were given no opportunity to consent to its publication or to offer a response. The article did not contain graphic accounts of sexual activity. The girls did comment in the article, however, concerning their sexual histories and their use or nonuse of birth control. It was not unreasonable for the principal to have concluded that such frank talk was inappropriate in a school-sponsored publication distributed to 14-year-old freshmenand presumably taken home to be read by students’ even younger brothers and sisters.

The student who was quoted by name in the version of the divorce article seen by Principal Reynolds made comments sharply critical of her father. The principal could reasonably have concluded that an individual publicly identified as an inattentive parent–indeed, as one who chose “playing cards with the guys” over home and family–was entitled to an opportunity to defend himself as a matter of journalistic fairness. These concerns were shared by both of Spectrum’s faculty advisers for the 1982-1983 school year, who testified that they would not have allowed the article to be printed without deletion of the student’s name.

Principal Reynolds testified credibly at trial that, at the time that he reviewed the proofs of the May 13 issue during an extended telephone conversation with Emerson, he believed that there was no time to make any changes in the articles, and that the newspaper had to be printed immediately or not at all. It is true that Reynolds did not verify whether the necessary modifications could still have been made in the articles, and that Emerson did not volunteer the information that printing could be delayed until the changes were made. We nonetheless agree with the District Court that the decision to excise the two pages containing the problematic articles was reasonable given the particular circumstances of this case. These circumstances included the very recent replacement of Stergos by Emerson, who may not have been entirely familiar with Spectrum editorial and production procedures, and the pressure felt by Reynolds to make an immediate decision so that students would not be deprived of the newspaper altogether.

In sum, we cannot reject as unreasonable Principal Reynolds’ conclusion that neither the pregnancy article nor the divorce article was suitable for publication in Spectrum. Reynolds could reasonably have concluded that the students who had written and edited these articles had not sufficiently mastered those portions of the Journalism II curriculum that pertained to the treatment of controversial issues and personal attacks, the need to protect the privacy of individuals whose most intimate concerns are to be revealed in the newspaper, and “the legal, moral, and ethical restrictions imposed upon journalists within [a] school community” that includes adolescent subjects and readers. Finally, we conclude that the principal’s decision to delete two pages of Spectrum, rather than to delete only the offending articles or to require that they be modified, was reasonable under the circumstances as he understood them. Accordingly, no violation of First Amendment rights occurred.”

On the other hand, the dissenting opinion slip was written by Justice William Brennan. He wrote, “The Court opens its analysis in this case by purporting to reaffirm Tinker’s time-tested proposition that public school students “do not ‘shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.'” (quoting Tinker, supra, at 506). That is an ironic introduction to an opinion that denudes high school students of much of the First Amendment protection that Tinker itself prescribed. Instead of “teach[ing] children to respect the diversity of ideas that is fundamental to the American system,” Board of Education v. Pico, and “that our Constitution is a living reality, not parchment preserved under glass,” Shanley v. Northeast Independent School Dist., Bexar Cty., Tex., the Court today “teach[es] youth to discount important principles of our government as mere platitudes.” West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette,The young men and women of Hazelwood East expected a civics lesson, but not the one the Court teaches them today.”


My Opinion:

In this case, I agree with the majority’s decision. Yes, students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” However, student’s do not get the same breadth of their rights at school like they do outside of the schoolhouse gate. For example, students don’t get to enjoy the Second Amendment right to bear arms, nor can they leave in the middle of a school lesson in order to go attend a protesting.

The principal had the right to revise the school newspaper, especially if it consisted of content he thought was not fit for the rest of the school, who may not be mature enough to handle that section of the newspaper. This does not violate a student’s freedom of speech. If a newspaper contains an article that talks about inappropriate content that would be best if not viewed by the students, it should come as no surprise when the principal or administrator gets rid of it.

*Justice Leaning L=Left, LC=Left of Center, C=Center, RC=Right of Center, R=Right

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