Has Hazelwood Run Dry? Let’s Talk About Censorship in High Schools

by / 1 Comment / 673 View / July 8, 2014

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The setting is the United States Supreme Court in Washington D.C, 1987. On one side of the court sits three former student journalists from The Spectrum, the student-produced publication of Hazelwood East High School in St. Louis, Missouri. On the other side sits Hazelwood’s administration, which, several years prior, without informing the editors of the newspaper, retracted pages from an edition containing two interviews concerning teenage pregnancy and divorce. The school removed not only the aforementioned articles—in which the names of those students interviewed were changed for the sake of privacy—but other articles as well, bringing to court a question about the First Amendment rights of high school students and the degree to which public schools can censor student media. In a 5-3 vote, the Supreme Court upheld the school’s right to censor the two articles, reversing the decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in St. Louis.

Hazelwood, as indicated by the Student Press Law Center (SPLC), a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting students’ First Amendment rights at the high school and collegiate levels, was a dramatic deviation from prior court decisions that had given student journalists extensive First Amendment protections for the previous two decades. Since this landmark decision, Hazelwood has established an awkward and arbitrary line between what can and cannot be censored, giving rise to rather unpopular practices such as prior review and administrative intimidation, both of which I was heavily exposed to during my two years in Gael Winds.

From the beginning of my junior year in high school—the point at which students can become staff writers for the newspaper—censorship was no longer a loose idea discussed in English class, but a terrifying force that would later come to suffocate my school’s journalism students like a boa constrictor. This asphyxiation of thought presented itself in the form of Dr. Beth Smith, headmaster of Shelton High School who since 2012, has taken advantage of the Hazelwood case by requiring Gael Winds to send her each and every article intended for print—news and opinion inclusive—for approval before publishing. In many cases, my fellow staff members and I were forced to alter or entirely remove sentences that she deemed “inappropriate.” For example, in the May 2014 edition, we ran an article that summarized a student council leadership conference. Despite the fact that the conference was pirate-themed, which encouraged the writer of the article to employ pirate jargon for the sake of humor and creativity, Dr. Smith deemed the use of the word “booty” to be inappropriate, even though the word was not used with a sexual connotation. In our June 2014 edition, as part of our Graduation section, we were prohibited from printing an educational infographic that highlighted statistics on college drinking. Our layout editors believed that the graphic could steer seniors away from drinking before and during college, but due to “recent events” in the school, it was effaced from the page. In addition, we were required to alter a quote from a former student (thus violating one of the most sacred rules in journalism), who in an advice article for the graduating seniors expressed her belief that “Skipping class is actually ok; just make sure you have a friend in the class who can tell you exactly what you missed so you’re prepared for the next one.”

But perhaps the most aggravating example of censorship that I have personally witnessed was in the editorial section of our June edition, when our Opinion editor was ordered to remove the following line: “Teachers and students alike are persecuted for holding opinions or educating others in ways that go against the norm.” This line was printed as a subtle response to Dr. Smith’s unfathomable decision to replace our newspaper advisor, who for the last four years has given nothing short of blood, sweat and tears to the world of student journalism. These changes are mere examples of the tyranny that prior review has personally instilled in the newsroom of Shelton High School.

In fact, Dr. Smith is also violating the legal grounds of Hazelwood; the 1987 ruling has since made it clear that schools are free to censor publications that while school-sponsored, are not open forums, the latter being defined as platforms where students are free to openly express their thoughts. Gael Winds, as we have expressed both in print and online for more than six years, is an open and public forum. While the newspaper is school-sponsored, as it is produced by students enrolled in journalism classes, its status as an open forum, according to the SPLC, grants it has more rights than The Spectrum or other publications of the non-open forum category. Dr. Smith is thus acting illegally. And on a national scale, she’s not alone.

In addition, Dr. Smith, as well as other school administrators who have drained the marrow from the bone that is Hazelwood, have forgotten one of the important aspects of the case: it is outdated.

  • KarenPage

    I applaud you for speaking out. The Internet has definitely changed the game since this depressing decision in 1988. One thing I noticed, though: It looks like Dr. Smith may have violated Hazelwood’s principles in her censorship. Hazelwood clearly states that administrators acting in this manner must have a “valid pedagogical reason” for doing so. In the op/ed example, I can’t think of one. Unfortunately, she’ll continue acting this way until someone stands up to her.