THE RIGHTS OF children in school, the Supreme Court has said, "are not automatically coextensive with the rights of adults in other settings." Some distinctions are obvious. Children cannot vote. In most cases they cannot marry without parental consent. They cannot hold public office. But in one important and controversial area -- First Amendment rights -- there is no clear, black-and-white distinction between protections accorded adults and those enjoyed by youngsters. The courts have held that most forms of political speech -- the wearing of black armbands to protest the Vietnam War, for example -- cannot be censored unless school authorities have reason to believe that such expression will "substantially interfere with the work of the school or impinge upon the rights of other students." But a sexually explicit speech delivered at a school assembly need not be tolerated, even though it could not be prohibited outside the school setting.
This week the Supreme Court dealt with these precedents in deciding whether school authorities could control the content of student newspapers. A high school principal in St. Louis County, Mo., had refused to allow publication in the school paper of two articles. One was a story about teen-age pregnancy in which easily identifiable girls in the school discussed their sexual experiences, methods of birth control and pregnancies. (The principal had no objection to another article on the general subject of teen-age pregnancy that was to have been printed in the same issue.) An article on divorce was also found objectionable because one student, identified by name, made personal, derogatory comments about her father.
In upholding the principal's position, Justice Byron White, writing for the 5-3 majority, distinguished between a school's obligation to tolerate particular student speech and its obligation to promote such speech, in effect by subsidizing it and circulating it under the school's imprimatur. Since the school funded the newspaper and published it for circulation among students, faculty and members of the community, he wrote, school officials have a right to set and maintain standards. In addition, this particular paper was produced by a journalism class. It was course work and, like other parts of the curriculum, under the supervision of teachers and administrators.
It is possible to accept this reasoning and still be concerned about the implications of the decision for the future of student publications. Certainly these rules should not be applied at the college level -- no justice said they should -- but even teen-agers should be allowed to publish criticism, raise uncomfortable questions and spur debate on subjects such as pregnancy, AIDS and drug abuse that are too often a very real aspect of high school culture today. Student newspapers that are full of fluff and unimaginative descriptions of school events and personalities may be safe, but they do not stimulate or challenge youngsters to expand their horizons and take on controversial issues that they will soon face as adults. School administrators who give young writers and editors room to advocate, to question and to ruffle a few feathers are doing the best job of preparing students for full and responsible citizenship.