Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier Case Summary

In Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, the U.S. Supreme Court held that public school officials have more control over "school-sponsored" speech than the First Amendment would typically allow.  

In 1988, the United States Supreme Court placed a limit on the types of speech protected by the First Amendment in a school setting. The case, Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, began with student journalists looking to push the envelope with articles they believed their classmates would relate to. It ended with the Supreme Court creating a new rule on student speech instead of applying the rule created twenty years earlier.

Background of Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier

In 1983, the Journalism II class at Hazelwood East High School in St. Louis, Missouri, included two articles in the school newspaper, the Spectrum. Both written by students, one article discussed teen pregnancy and the other discussed coping with parents' divorce.

As part of the student paper's regular practice, the supervising teacher sent page proofs to the school principal, Robert Eugene Reynolds. Principal Reynolds found the divorce and teen pregnancy articles inappropriate, both for their content and concerns that the students featured in them would be identified, although all names in the stories had been changed. Believing there was not enough time to alter the articles before the paper went to print, Principal Reynolds instructed the paper's faculty advisor to remove the pages.

Without informing the student journalists, the principal deemed the articles inappropriate and removed them before the paper was published. The editor of the newspaper and two student journalists sued, claiming the school had violated their First Amendment Rights.

First Amendment Rights of Students

Several other important cases have addressed the free speech rights of students. Tinker v. Des Moines and Bethel School District v. Fraser are both discussed in detail in the Hazelwood opinion and dissent:

Tinker v. Des Moines (1969) - Students wore black armbands to protest the war in Vietnam. The court held that students do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate." The justices established a new rule: A student's speech could not be regulated by the school unless it is likely to cause a "substantial disruption" or "material interference with school activities."

Bethel School District v. Fraser (1986) - A student gave a speech in support of a classmate's run for student government that included several sexual innuendos. The Supreme Court found that it is "highly appropriate" for a public school to limit the use of vulgar or offensive terms in the school setting.

Hawk v. Easton Area School District (2013) - Students wore bracelets that said "I ♥ BOOBIES" as part of a nationally recognized breast cancer awareness campaign. The case was not taken up by the Supreme Court, but the Third Circuit Court of Appeals held it was protected speech.

The Court's Analysis in Hazelwood: School-Sponsored Speech

Rather than examine the case under the "substantial disruption" standard established by Tinker v. Des Moines, the Supreme Court created a new standard in Hazelwood to address "school-sponsored speech."

The decision, written by Justice Byron White, argued that the case did not ask the same question as Tinker, and therefore, a different standard was needed. Justice White wrote that Tinker asked the court to decide whether the First Amendment required schools to tolerate student political speech. Meanwhile, he saw Hazelwood as a question of whether a school must affirmatively promote a student's speech.

The majority in Hazelwood distinguished a student's personal expression that happens to occur on school grounds from expression that stems from a school-sanctioned activity:

"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."

Why Control Student Speech?

Justice White argued several reasons for educators to have more control over student expression, such as:­

  • Ensuring students learn the lessons the school activity is designed to teach (without distractions)
  • Keeping students from reading or hearing material inappropriate for their maturity level
  • Preventing the views of an individual student from being erroneously attributed to the school

The majority ruled The Spectrum was not a "forum for public expression," even though the paper was distributed in the surrounding community as well as the school.

Dissenting Opinions

Justices William Brennan, Thurgood Marshall, and Harry Blackmun dissented in the Hazelwood case. "When the young men and women of Hazelwood East High School registered for Journalism II, they expected a civics lesson," Justice Brennan wrote. "This case arose when the Hazelwood East administration breached its own promise, dashing its students' expectations."

The dissenting justices viewed The Spectrum as an environment where students could learn to exercise their First Amendment rights. Justice Brennan even points out that the local school board affirmatively guaranteed this freedom. Board policy vowed that student publications would not "restrict free expression or diverse viewpoints within the rules of responsible journalism."

Arguing Against Blanket Censorship

Justice Brennan reasoned that, while schools have a legitimate interest in curbing speech that directly interferes with the teaching environment, the First Amendment does not provide authority for blanket censorship.

According to Justice Brennan, the court had already found the right balance in Tinker:

"I fully agree with the court that the First Amendment should afford an educator the prerogative not to sponsor the publication of a newspaper article that is 'ungrammatical, poorly written, inadequately researched, biased or prejudiced... But we need not abandon Tinker to reach that conclusion; we need only apply it."

Furthermore, the dissent found no basis for the majority's distinction between students' personal expression and speech that arises in school-sponsored activities. He points to Fraser, where the Supreme Court applied the rule from Tinker to a student's speech at a school assembly — arguably a "school-sponsored" event.

The Impact of Hazelwood

Critics of the Hazelwood decision have called it a giant step back for student press. It creates standards and goals for student journalism that are vastly different from a professional setting, which begs the question: What are student journalists supposed to be learning under Hazelwood?

As Justice Brennan pointed out in the dissent, the standard set by the majority in Hazelwood left the door open for school administrators to censor all student speech they didn't agree with.

Hazelwood Extended to Higher Education Settings

Another criticism of the case focuses on what the Supreme Court didn't say in Hazelwood. In the opinion, the court doesn't address in what academic settings the standard applies. Although it was initially framed as a rule created to protect children from mature content, the ruling has been extended to college and even graduate school settings.

In 2011, a nursing student in her 50s was dismissed from Auburn University based on comments she made about the program's grading and disciplinary system. And in her case against the university, a federal court used the Hazelwood standard to find her speech was not protected by the First Amendment. However, courts in other federal circuits have held that Hazelwood does not apply at the college level.

Today: States Pass Statutes on Student Expression

Although Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier remains an essential precedent for First Amendment cases involving students, many states have passed laws that adopt a standard closer to Tinker. In 2021, fifteen states had statutes protecting the First Amendment rights of student journalists — and eleven more states had similar laws in the works. These state statutes lessen the impact of Hazelwood on both high school and college journalists.

Read the full opinion from Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier on FindLaw's Cases & Codes.

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