Education Law

When Can Schools Censor Student Journalists?

By E.A. Gjelten, Author and Editor
The U.S. Supreme Court has curtailed high school students’ First Amendment rights when they’re writing for official school publications. But several states give student journalists greater free-speech protections.

High school is a time when student journalists can learn their craft while realizing their passion for uncovering the truth and expressing their views. But that passion can run up against the interests of school administrators who often want to avoid controversy—or anything that makes the school look bad. Students don’t lose all of their constitutional rights to freedom of expression—which includes freedom of the press—when they go to public school. (Private schools are a different story, because the First Amendment only prevents government from restricting free speech.) But the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed limits on free speech rights at K-12 schools, including some censorship of student journalists.

The Hazelwood Decision and School Censorship

In a case involving censorship of an article that journalism students wrote for their high school newspaper, the Supreme Court held that public school officials may control the style and content of what students write in publications sponsored by the school, as long as the administrators have a valid educational reason for their decisions. (Hazelwood School Dist. v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U.S. 260 (1988).)

This broad editorial control extends to other school-sponsored vehicles for expression like yearbooks and school plays. But it doesn’t apply if school authorities have, “by policy or by practice,” allowed a school paper or online publication to become what courts call a “public forum.” That means the publication serves as an open platform for students to express themselves freely and make key decisions about content without prior approval from teachers or administrators.

Most courts agree that the Hazelwood standard applies only to K-12 schools.

Reasons to Muzzle Student Journalists

School officials have often used the Hazelwood decision to censor articles in school newspapers (including online versions) about issues that are simply controversial or embarrassing to administrators, such as:

  • a lawsuit against a school district claiming that diesel fumes from its bus yard were making neighbors sick
  • rampant drug use among students
  • violence on campus, or
  • unsanitary conditions in school restrooms.

At times, the censorship is based on the student’s opinion rather than the subject of the article—for instance, when a high school principal pulls one student editorial against a proposed school policy but lets stand a companion editorial in favor of the policy. When students have sued over this kind of censorship (known as “viewpoint discrimination”), some courts have said that it violates the First Amendment. But others have found that it’s allowed under Hazelwood.

Stronger Protections for Independent Student Journalism

Students have long used “underground” papers to air their grievances and write about topics that official school publications won’t touch. Now, of course, most independent student journalism appears online. Schools generally have little control over underground student publications unless they’re distributed on school grounds—or, in the case of online versions, targeted at the school community. Even in that situation, administrators usually may not censor the content—or punish students for what they write—unless it would seriously disrupt school activities or violate other students’ rights. (For more on that rule, known as the Tinker standard, see our article on disruptive student speech and the First Amendment.)

When Student Journalism Is Semi-Independent

Students often produce newspapers or other media as an extracurricular activity—meaning they aren’t part of a journalism class, but the school gives them official recognition, funding, or other resources. For instance, students may use the school’s computers or its internet connection to write and post their articles. When that happens, it’s not always clear how much control school administrators have over the content. Some courts have found that the Hazelwood standard doesn’t apply to extracurricular student newspapers.

States Step Up to Protect Student Journalists

Several states—including California, Iowa, Colorado, Oregon, and Arkansas—have laws that give student journalists greater free-speech protections than they have under the federal Hazelwood standard. For example:

  • In California, high schools may not punish students for communications that would be protected under the First Amendment if they happened off campus. The law also applies to charter schools and private schools (with some exceptions for parochial schools), and it gives students the right to sue schools that violate the statute. (Cal. Educ. Code § 48950.)
  • Colorado and Iowa give student editors the right to decide what goes in official school publications, as long as they don’t violate any laws or the general rules for free expression at school. Faculty advisors may supervise the students, but only to teach them professional standards for English and journalism. (Iowa Code § 280.22, Colo. Rev. Stat §22-1-120.)

Questions for Your Lawyer

  • Can school officials (or anyone else) force my daughter to turn over the names of confidential sources she used to write an article for the school paper?
  • Can the school punish my son for an article he wrote at school but posted online after the principal yanked it from the official school newspaper?
  • What can I do if the principal has filed a libel lawsuit based on an article that my child wrote for an underground student website? Is the principal considered a public figure in the school (making it harder to prove libel)?
  • Can school officials search my child’s phone for unpublished work or sources related to student journalism?
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