The Supreme Court gave public school officials sweeping power to censor school-sponsored student publications yesterday, rejecting the complaints of three dissenting justices that it was approving "brutal censorship."
The court, continuing its curtailment in recent years of students' constitutional rights, said school officials could ban any speech that they reasonably felt might be "inconsistent" with the school's "basic educational mission."
Justice Byron R. White, writing for the majority, said school officials, acting in their "capacity as publisher of a school newspaper or producer of a school play," had the authority to bar "speech that is, for example, ungrammatical, poorly written, inadequately researched, biased or prejudiced, vulgar or profane, or unsuitable for immature audiences."
The ruling was a departure from a key 1969 ruling, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, in which the court said officials could not expel students wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam war.
In Tinker, the court for the first time ruled that there were significant limitations to the authority of school officials to discipline students, saying students did not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate."
But the court yesterday quoted approvingly from a dissent in that ruling that the Constitution did not "compel the teachers, parents and elected school officials to surrender control of the American public school system to public school students."
Yesterday's 5-to-3 ruling in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier involved a Missouri high school principal's censorship of articles on teen-age pregnancy and the impact of divorce on students there. The principal found the articles inappropriate because they might reveal the identity of the pregnant students and because the references to sexual activity and birth control were improper for younger students to see.
Several student staff members distributed copies of the censored articles on their own and then sued, saying the principal's actions violated their First Amendment rights.
A District Court judge ruled in favor of the school, but the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed. The appeals court, quoting Tinker, said school officials could only censor speech when "necessary to avoid material and substantial interference with school work or discipline . . . or the rights of others."
But White, who voted with the majority in Tinker, said yesterday that the "First Amendment rights of students in the public schools are not automatically coextensive with the rights of adults in other settings" and "must be applied in light of the special characteristics of the school environment."
Officials "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 setting to the particulars of teen-age sexual activity in a high school setting," White said.
Tinker concerned "educators' ability to silence a student's personal expression that happens to occur on the school premises," White said, while yesterday's case involved the authority over school-sponsored and school-financed publications and activities that were part of the curriculum and could be seen as bearing the "imprimatur of the school."
White said the First Amendment served as no barrier to school officials' full control over school-sponsored activities "so long as their actions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns" and had a "valid educational purpose."
Justice William J. Brennan Jr., joined by Justices Thurgood Marshall and Harry A. Blackmun, said the principal "broke more than just a promise" to the students when he cut the articles. "He violated the First Amendment's prohibitions against censorship of any student expression that neither disrupts classwork nor invades the rights of others, and against any censorship that is not narrowly tailored to serve its purpose."
The court's standard for allowing censorship, Brennan said, could allow school officials to suppress any speech that might run counter to the administration's moral or political views, allowing authorities to "convert . . . our public schools into enclaves of totalitarianism . . . that strangle the free mind at its source. The First Amendment," he said, "permits no such blanket censorship authority."
"The mere fact of school sponsorship does not, as the court suggests, license such thought control in the high school, whether through school suppression of disfavored viewpoints or through official assessment of topic sensitivity," Brennan said.
School officials hailed yesterday's ruling as an appropriate redefinition of the 1969 decision. Gwendolyn H. Gregory, deputy general counsel for the National School Boards Association, said most school officials felt they already had substantial authority over student publications and that there would be little practical change as a result of the ruling.
But Richard M. Schmidt Jr., general counsel of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, said the ruling could open the door to increased use of censorship. Schmidt said school officials confronted with a controversial story may decide "it's easier to just pull it out of the paper rather than arouse the natives."
In earlier curtailments of students' rights, the court three years ago said school officials did not need a warrant or probable cause to search students and two years ago said officials could discipline a student for using vulgar language.