On the front page of The Post Jan. 14, I read of the Supreme Court's decision in the case of Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, in which Justice Byron White, writing for the majority, rules that school principals may censor any speech that they reasonably feel might be "inconsistent" with the school's "basic educational mission." On page A3 of the same paper, I read about Principal Joe Clark, "the Wyatt Earp of Eastside High," who roams his institution's halls with a baseball bat. Perhaps Justice White should have read about Joe Clark before handing down his decision.
I do not live near Eastside High, and I am certainly unqualified to judge the real accomplishments and problems of Joe Clark. But assume for a moment the existence somewhere of a principal like Joe Clark, a "demagogue of an antidemocratic bent," a "control freak," as a New Jersey paper put it. Assume that this principal believes his high school's "basic educational mission" is not only to produce academic excellence but also to instill moral standards (according to his morals), courtesy (according to his manners) and responsible life styles (according to his notions of responsibility). Assume further that he believes homosexual conduct, premarital sex and abortion immoral; miniskirts unmannerly and not registering for the draft irresponsible. Now, considering Hazelwood, how may he further his "mission"?
Our hypothetical principal, it seems, may censor any articles pertaining to any of the above. Worse than this, Hazelwood gives him explicit license to ban from his high school's student newspaper articles and surveys about premarital sex as "unsuitable for immature audiences." If he believes reasonably that a newspaper has been "inadequately researched," our principal may prevent the paper from printing any article at all. A high school writer who completes a term paper on, say, legalizing marijuana might never get it published, even if student editors love the piece and his teacher has given him an "A."
What if a student were to write a newspaper column supporting Michael Dukakis or Jack Kemp for president? Could our principal cut that? Apparently so. He can veto "speech that might reasonably be perceived to . . . associate the school with any position other than neutrality in matters of political controversy."
One absurdity inherent in Justice White's decision is the idea that when an idea is published in a school newspaper it must be associated with the school. Newspapers, even in high schools, could print a box of type stating that the op-ed pieces reflect the views of the authors and not those of the paper or the school.
To the assertion that a school may tolerate speech obnoxious to it but should be able to "refuse to sponsor," I reply that many high school authors have no one else to sponsor them. A student who supports Mr. Dukakis when his high school paper cannot is out of luck. Freedom to write without the freedom to publish and distribute means little.
Used often enough, the power to censor controversial articles indiscriminately on subjects of concern to high school students would gut high school papers of reporters and separate the teaching of journalism from journalism's first duty: to report facts. If, as has happened locally at Yorktown High, a principal has problems with the methods of a survey about drinking, let him denounce it. Let him request a new survey. But do not let him prevent the publication of results that he believes accurate merely because they may prove "unsuitable for immature audiences."
Restricting the marketplace of ideas and preventing students from publishing accurate data or expressing their own opinions can only hinder a school's "basic educational mission." Justice White has handed angry principals a guillotine instead of a scalpel, and high school journalists can only hope that a future court with the clarity of Justice William Brennan and the courage of the late Justice William Douglas will reverse the decision.