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

2012-07-10 19:57:50

In Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, the Court upheld the school district’s authority to exercise editorial control over a high school newspaper that was produced in the journalism class and funded largely by the school board. The student staff members contended that school officials had violated their First Amendment speech rights by deleting pages containing two articles from an issue of the paper. One article described the experiences of three students with pregnancy, and the other discussed the impact of divorce on students at the school. The school principal was concerned that the first article would invade the privacy of the three unidentified students by enabling readers readily to determine their identities, and that its discussion of sexual activity and Birth Control would be unsuitable for younger students. The principal was concerned that the second article named a particular student and contained negative references to her divorced parents, who had been given no opportunity to respond or object to the article’s contents.

Kuhlmeier’s five-justice majority distanced itself from Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969), which had upheld the students’ First Amendment rights to wear black armbands in school in a nondisruptive protest of the Vietnam War. Tinker held that ‘‘[s]tudents in school as well as out of school are ‘persons’ under our Constitution,’’ and concluded that students do not ‘‘shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.’’ Kuhlmeier reaffirmed post-Tinker Supreme Court decisions which emphasized that ‘‘the First Amendment rights of students in the public schools ‘are not automatically coextensive with the rights of adults in other settings’’’ and ‘‘must be ‘applied in light of the special characteristics of the school environment’.’’ For the four Kuhlmeier dissenters, Justice William J. Brennan accused the majority of ‘‘abandon[ing] Tinker.’’

Kuhlmeier concluded that

[t]he question whether the First Amendment requires a school to tolerate particular student speech—the question that we addressed in Tinker—is different from the question whether the First Amendment requires a school affirmatively to promote particular student speech. The former question addresses educators’ ability to silence a student’s personal expression that happens to occur on the school premises. The latter question concerns educators’ authority over school-sponsored publications, theatrical productions, and other expressive activities that students, parents, and members of the public might reasonably perceive to bear the imprimatur of the school. School-sponsored expressive activities ‘‘may be fairly characterized as part of the school curriculum, whether or not they occur in a traditional classroom setting, so long as they are supervised by faculty members and designed to impart particular knowledge or skills to student participants and audiences.’’

Because the school newspaper was not a public forum, school officials could regulate its contents ‘‘in any reasonable manner.’’ Kuhlmeier held that ‘‘educators do not offend the First Amendment by exercising editorial control over the style and content of student speech in school-sponsored expressive activities so long as their actions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.’’ The decision’s reasonableness test confers considerable discretion on school officials:

It is only when the decision to censor a school-sponsored publication, theatrical production, or other vehicle of student expression has no valid educational purpose that the First Amendment is so ‘directly and sharply implicate[d],’ as to require judicial intervention to protect students’ constitutional rights.

Justice White found the Hazelwood principal’s decision, grounded in pedagogical concerns, reasonable under the circumstances as the principal understood them.

In later First Amendment challenges brought by students, lower courts have applied Kuhlmeier’s reasonableness test to uphold exercises of authority by school officials over a wide variety of schoolsponsored activities other than school newspapers. In Henerey v. City of St. Charles (1999), for example, the Eighth Circuit upheld disqualification from a school election of a high school student who distributed condoms during his campaign, whose slogan was ‘‘The Safe Choice.’’ In McCann v. Fort Zumwalt School District (1999), the district court upheld the school superintendent’s refusal to permit the high school marching band to play a song that he believed promoted illicit drug use.

Kuhlmeier demonstrated that the First Amendment Speech Clause provides schoolchildren considerably less protection than it provides adults. In almost all circumstances, official editorial control of a newspaper published outside the public schools would be an unconstitutional prior restraint. Public school officials, however, have considerable leeway to determine the curriculum and regulate improper influences because, as Kuhlmeier reaffirmed, ‘‘the education of the Nation’s youth is primarily the responsibility of parents, teachers, and state and local school officials, and not of federal judges.’’


References and Further Reading

  • Chemerinsky, Erwin, Constitutional Law: Principles and Policies. 2nd ed. New York: Aspen, 2002.
  • Gardner, Martin R. Understanding Juvenile Law. 2nd ed. Charlottesville, VA: LexisNexis, 2003.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 U.S. 503 (1969)
  • Henerey v. City of St. Charles, 200 F.3d 1128, 1135–36 (8th Cir. 1999)
  • McCann v. Fort Zumwalt School District, 50 F.Supp.2d 918 (E.D.Mo. 1999)

See also Children and the First Amendment; Freedom of the Press: Modern Period (1917–Present); Public Forum Doctrines; Public/Nonpublic Forums Distinction