Apart from teen-age newspaper editors, self-appointed guardians of journalistic rights and First Amendment extremists, few Americans are likely to take serious exception to the Supreme Court's ruling last week on censorship of high school newspapers. Its support for a principal in Missouri who had deleted stories from a student newspaper is sound both constitutionally and educationally. But the decision should not be interpreted as carte blanche for censorship, and it must not be taken as an excuse to sweep under the rug the serious issues with which the student journalists were attempting to deal.
The principal of Hazelwood East High School, Robert E. Reynolds, objected to two articles in an issue of Spectrum, the student newspaper, dealing with behavior on and off campus. One contained interviews with three unnamed girls who had gotten pregnant; the other, a discussion of divorce, quoted a student's criticism of her father and identified her by name. In each case, the principal felt that the privacy of the individuals involved would be invaded by publication of the stories, and that the subject matter was too mature for younger students.
So he ordered the articles removed from the newspaper, and he did so with full authority. The Hazelwood student paper is not an independent publication, but a teaching instrument of its journalism department. Had the students chosen to express themselves in an independent publication -- an underground or counterculture newspaper, perhaps -- Reynolds would have had no authority to censor or discipline them, and presumably would have had the good sense not to try. But stories published in the student newspaper are another matter altogether; they "bear the imprimatur of the school," as Justice Byron White put it in his majority opinion, and the school has the right to "refuse to lend its name and resources" to "student expression" that it finds unsuitable or distasteful. As White wrote:
"A school must be able to take into account the emotional maturity of the intended audience in determining whether to disseminate student speech on potentially sensitive topics, which might range from the existence of Santa Claus in an elementary school to the particulars of teen-age sexual activity in a high school setting. A school must also retain the authority to refuse to sponsor student speech that might reasonably be perceived to advocate drug or alcohol abuse, irresponsible sex or conduct otherwise inconsistent with the shared values of a civilized social order."
In conclusion, White wrote that 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." Or, to put it another way, high school isn't the real world, and the rules of the real world do not always apply there.
To Justice William Brennan, writing in dissent, the majority decision is "brutal censorship," but even as one who usually agrees with Brennan on questions of civil liberties and rights I think in this instance he goes too far. The decision does not, as he contends, overturn a 1969 ruling denying that students "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse door"; the majority quite specifically reaffirmed that broad principle, qualifying it only by the observation, also based in precedent, that "a school need not tolerate student speech that is inconsistent with its 'basic educational mission,' even though the government could not censor similar speech outside the school."
This seems to me a matter of simple common sense. Even though the legal rights of children have gained broader recognition in recent years, it remains that children are not adults and that they have no explicit or implicit right to behave with the full freedom granted to adults. Freedom entails the responsibility to exercise it with mature judgment, and this neither young children nor adolescents possess. One of the most important functions of the schools is to prepare them for that exercise; the principal of Hazelwood High School, in restricting the contents of an issue of Spectrum, was attempting among other things to teach his journalism students a lesson about what is and is not a responsible exercise of journalistic freedom.
But it was also an act of censorship, no question about that, and no doubt the court's endorsement of it will be interpreted in some quarters as license to clamp down on other, less offensive, forms of student expression. Should that lead to heavy-handed restraints on student publications, performances and other activities -- especially any restraints involving the expression of political or ideological sentiment -- the result would be a bad civics lesson for the students and an abrogation of sound educational practice by the schools.
But this isn't likely to happen, at least on a widespread basis; the initial reaction to the decision was measured, except among the few alarmists who see it as the death knell for student rights, and no principals seemed to be in a great hurry to haul out the scissors and red pencils. Most school authorities probably agree with the Hazelwood school superintendent, who said the decision "reaffirms our position that the board of education has authority to establish curricula."
What nobody seemed to be saying, though, is that the ruling gives school administrators no help in dealing with the questions that the Spectrum articles raised. Like it or not, reality at the high schools is very different from what it was only a generation ago, and reality is what school administrators have to contend with. Sexual promiscuity, teen-age pregnancy, drug and alcohol abuse: these and "conduct otherwise inconsistent with the shared values of a civilized social order" are scarcely new to the schools, but they are present now to an extent without precedent and they simply cannot be scissored away by censorship or other forms of escape.
However clumsily and immaturely, the editors and writers of Spectrum were trying to discuss these questions in a manner that they hoped would help their fellow students; their journalistic qualifications may have been limited, but their intentions were good. The court's reaffirmation of the schools' disciplinary powers certainly is welcome, but if the schools now use those powers to push reality out of sight, they will be doing no one any good, least of all the students. A society that expects its educational system at all levels to act in loco parentis cannot insist that this same system willfully ignore the facts of its students' lives. Somehow the schools have to reconcile their traditional educational mission with the responsibility we have foisted on them to teach students how to live in the real world; it's a tough assignment.