A recent survey of 531 student newspaper advisers and 531 secondary school principals indicates that censorship of student newspapers remains as American as oat bran cereal. Indeed, the very notion that student journalists are entitled to some First Amendment rights seems to astonish most adults -- very much including some grown-up reporters and editors.
The argument runs that these tyros have just begun to learn, and the one fundamental thing they must learn is that in the tough, real world of professional journalism, what journalists write is at the mercy of the publisher and the editors. Reporters may object to having their pieces rejected, but the First Amendment can't help them.
And so it should be in newspapers published in public schools, say those opposed to coddling kid reporters. After all, they work for a publisher too, the principal.
As one letter writer to The Post has explained, "The role of the publisher belongs ... to the school's principal, who has a publisher's right to see that the content of the paper is satisfactory to him." And in the real world, the letter writer emphasized, the First Amendment does not apply.
What is overlooked, however, is that a public high school is not privately owned, like a newspaper in the so-called real world. It is a creature of the state, and its principal is an agent of the state. When there is state action -- as in the censoring of a student newspaper by the principal -- the First Amendment kicks in.
In the 1969 Supreme Court Tinker decision -- establishing student rights of free expression in school, including in their newspapers -- Justice Abe Fortas emphasized that "students may not be confined to the expression of those sentiments that are officially approved."
This decision did not provide total freedom. Student speech was not protected, said the court, if it disrupted class work or invaded the rights of others. Later cases in the lower courtsmade it clear that, under Tinker, students could not print defamatory or obscene material; but the burden of proof was on the principal to demonstrate that the material was indeed obscene or defamatory under state law.
Student journalists did not have full First Amendment rights, but they had a lot of room to write news and opinions that the principal would think twice about censoring for fear of being censured in court. On the other hand, no judge, including Abe Fortas, said the students had license to print anything they wanted to.
In the 1987 oral arguments in the Hazelwood case -- which gave principals far greater censorship power over student expression -- Justice Antonin Scalia kept conjuring up a scenario in which an unrestrained student newspaper would enthusiastically advocate the use of heroin in school.
Under Tinker, however, no student journalist was unrestrained -- a point that the lawyer for the student journalists at Hazelwood High School never made to the court. The use of heroin, for instance, is illegal, and a principal can forbid the pushing of illegal acts in the school paper.
A few months ago, Colorado joined Iowa in passing a law that, in essence, rejects Hazelwood so far as that state is concerned. (Legislators in other states are considering similar bills; and using earlier state precedents, California and Massachusetts have also declined to embrace Hazelwood.)
Vigorously lobbying for the Colorado statute were students and teachers in the Colorado High School Press Association. Among those opposing the bill were real-world journalists at the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News. An editorial in the Denver Post noted with dismay that the law would "purport to offer students what they will never enjoy as adults -- freedom without responsibility."
Yet that very Colorado law says that there will be no prior restraint on the student press -- except for expression that is obscene, libelous, would substantially disrupt the operation of the school, violates the privacy rights of others or incites students to commit unlawful acts.
Not impressed, the Rocky Mountain News elevated the discussion by observing that "the inmates should probably not have so much say on who runs the asylum."
Before the bill became law, this was how the asylum was being operated by its adult keepers in the two years following Hazelwood -- according to Pat Henry of the Colorado High School Press Association:
"An opinion piece criticizing a mandatory study hall policy was censored by a principal even though an editorial supporting the new policy appeared on the same page.
"An editorial about an injury at a football game was censored, and the editor was told to cover 'only happy, positive things.'
"Reporters were required to write stories in support of a bond issue which ... would provide $7.5 million to the school district for renovations."
When adults are in charge, students do learn responsible journalism, but responsible to whom?