Unmuzzling High School Journalists

By Richard Just
Saturday, January 12, 2008

What happened at the Supreme Court 20 years ago tomorrow has been long forgotten by most Americans -- if they ever heard about it at all. Unlike the better-known decisions of the last century, the ruling handed down on Jan. 13, 1988, had nothing to do with race or abortion rights. It didn't become fodder for presidential candidates and hasn't galvanized voters on either the left or right.

Yet over the past two decades, the court's ruling in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, which concerned high school newspapers, has had far-reaching consequences. Not only has it changed the way journalism is taught at many schools, it has made it more difficult for high school students to learn the important lessons about democracy that come from publishing -- or simply reading -- serious newspapers.

Before 1988, the precedent governing newspapers at public high schools was a 1969 Supreme Court decision called Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, in which the court upheld the right of students to wear antiwar armbands in school, writing that neither students nor teachers "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate."

Nineteen years later, in Hazelwood, the court took up the case of a principal at a high school near St. Louis who had deleted two pages of a student newspaper because he objected to articles about pregnancy and divorce. The court, in an opinion written by Justice Byron White, affirmed the principal's right to censor the paper. Though the 1988 ruling did not overturn Tinker, it held that the 1969 ruling did not necessarily protect school-sponsored publications.

To be sure, the opinion did not grant principals a blanket right to micromanage their newspapers. Censorship decisions, White wrote, would need to be "reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns," and under certain circumstances, publications could be mostly protected from censorship. Still, the decision tipped the balance of power at high school newspapers dramatically in favor of principals.

Definitive statistics on trends in high school censorship are hard to come by, but anecdotal data suggest that many principals have exploited the advantage Hazelwood gave them. For instance, in the years following the ruling, the Student Press Law Center, which provides legal advice to student journalists, began to see a "tremendous spike" in calls from public high school students facing censorship, according to Mike Hiestand, a legal consultant to the center.

My own experiences have convinced me that today, the vast majority of students are unable to practice true journalism at their high school papers. For the past six summers, I have directed a program for about 20 high school journalists at Princeton University. All the students are talented writers and thoughtful intellectuals. Yet, by and large, they work for newspapers that are either explicitly censored or restrained by the looming threat of official disapproval -- newspapers that read more like school-sponsored news releases than true journalism. Many have been taught to write fluffy profiles of teachers and to celebrate the achievements of their sports teams; fewer have been encouraged to challenge, to criticize or to investigate. Perhaps the most important part of our program's curriculum is to help students unlearn the instincts they have acquired at their high school newspapers.

No high school principal would dream of telling the basketball team that it could run drills but not play games, or permit the drama club to rehearse but never to stage shows. Yet, thanks in part to Hazelwood, many high schools train their students in journalism without allowing them to truly practice it.

Dissenting from the court's decision in 1988, Justice William Brennan seemed to understand how much damage it might cause. The approach of Hazelwood's principal, he wrote, was "particularly insidious from one to whom the public entrusts the task of inculcating in its youth an appreciation for the cherished democratic liberties that our Constitution guarantees." Brennan's message was clear: More than just the health of journalism education was at stake. Hazelwood was about the values that we teach the next generation, the people who will carry the American democratic project forward.

Indeed, it wasn't only student journalists who were hurt by Hazelwood; it also was their readers, particularly students who might have limited exposure to newspapers or magazines at home. By showing them how an investigative story or a lively opinion section can add to their understanding of the school they attend, an ambitious, uncensored student newspaper teaches principles that are essential to a free society: the importance of skepticism, criticism and empiricism; the necessity of checks on authority; the centrality of open debate to democratic culture.

These lessons may be even more necessary today than they were in 1988. In the age of Facebook and MySpace and blogs, when the line between what constitutes journalism and what doesn't has become more confusing than ever, it is especially important for high schools to teach by example the difference between rumor and reporting: to show what journalists can accomplish -- and how important a role they can play in holding leaders accountable -- when they ask hard questions and write responsibly but fearlessly.

High school journalism need not be stifled forever. Since Hazelwood, several states have passed laws protecting high school journalists from censorship. But even in the vast majority that have not, other steps can be taken. After all, while Hazelwood handed principals plenty of authority over student newspapers, it didn't require them to use it.

So this is a double plea, from a former high school journalist who grew up to be a professional one. First, to student reporters: Be brazen in pushing the boundaries of what you're allowed to write. Second, to high school principals: Stop using the power the Supreme Court unwisely gave you 20 years ago. By your restraint you'll be helping to produce not just better reporters but better citizens.

The writer is deputy editor of the New Republic.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company