The Censorship of Student Press

In 2018, Herriman High School’s newspaper, The Telegraph, was censored by their school’s administration. Gabriel Greschler of the SPLC (Student Press Law Center) says, “The Telegraph broke a story about a teacher at their school who was fired for allegedly inappropriately texting a female student. The school censored the story.” 

The Telegraph staff was opposed to this censorship and believed that the article should be published, however, they did not publish it on their website until later. Before publishing anything, the Herriman students reached out to the SPLC for help. When they discovered that the SPLC was planning to publish an article on their situation, they decided to upload the article to their website.

Almost immediately, the students were locked out of their website and the article had been taken down. To retaliate against the administration they did not agree with, the Telegraph staff created a new website called The Telegram. The article was then published on said website. 

The Telegraph’s story reached national headlines. Prestigious newspapers, such as The Washington Post, had seen the SPLC’s articles and immediately took action. The Herriman students received overwhelming support from both their community and the nation as a whole. 

Many people argue that a Supreme Court case, Hazelwood v Kuhlmeier, protected the Herriman administration in their decision. In this landmark case, a group of high school journalists were censored by their school as well. They argued that it violated their First Amendment rights, and took it to court. The Supreme Court ended up ruling that, “The First Amendment rights of student journalists are not violated when school officials prevent the publication of certain articles in the school newspaper,” says the U.S. Court’s website. This ruling changed the ability of students to exercise their first amendment rights.

At school, students have limited first amendment rights due to a controlled environment. This means that the students have their first amendment rights, but only to a certain extent. Their rights are somewhat limited by their administrators and teachers in order to maintain an environment that will allow students to learn. Therefore, students are subject to Hazelwood standards if their publication is considered school sponsored, if it is officially associated with the school, or if it is not listed as a public forum in school or district rules or district policy.

In the book, Law of the Student Press, in the a chapter entitled “High School Press Freedom,” it states that school officials must have “a valid educational purpose for their censorship” and must be able to prove that “the censorship is not intended to silence a particular viewpoint that they disagree with or that is unpopular.” If the censorship does not meet these guidelines, it is not protected by Hazelwood.

In such a case, the student press members have the right to oppose the censorship, as long as they go about it in the correct manner. This is where the SPLC comes in. The Student Press Law Center was created to assist student journalists in knowing and exercising their rights, and to give them legal advice/protection when necessary. The Herriman students were able to get support from this association and that is the reason they were so successful in their resistance.

There is another Supreme Court case affecting student press: Tinker v Des Moines. In this case, a group of students were planning to wear armbands at school to protest the Vietnam war. Their principal told them they would be suspended if they wore them, but some of them wore them anyway. These students were, in fact, suspended, and their parents decided to sue the school. They believed their children’s right to free speech had been violated. When the case reached the Supreme Court, it was decided that students’ right to free speech and expression is not heavily restricted in the school. The SPLC notes that “school officials may not punish or prohibit student speech unless they can clearly demonstrate that it will result in a material and substantial disruption of normal school activities or invade the rights of others.”

While these cases may seem to set the same precedent, they definitely do not. Tinker standards are widely viewed as laid back compared to that of Hazelwood. It is generally much easier for censorship to occur under Hazelwood than under Tinker. 

Under our current form of government, the word of the Supreme Court isn’t necessarily law. Nothing can be enforced by the Supreme Court, however, their rulings encourage state governments to pass supporting legislation. Each state can choose whether to use Tinker standards or Hazelwood standards. That is why the students at Herriman High School were censored – Utah’s current laws only support Hazelwood standards.

Despite the current legislation, not all schools in Utah seriously censor their newspaper. In fact, there are some that barely censor anything. These are widely regarded as some of the best student newspapers in the state. There are competitions for high school newspapers. Writers compete with their articles, artists with their art, and photographers with their pictures. The non-censored schools tend to do better in these competitions. 

Here at Copper Hills, we operate under Hazelwood standards. An example of this is The Grizzly Growl. Before any article can be published, it must be read and approved by a designated administrator, who has full rights to censor anything and everything they deem “inappropriate” or “too controversial.” Sometimes this is a good thing; the point of school is to learn, and they must create and maintain an environment where that is possible. Be that as it may, there can be a margin of error that is a bit too large.

Mr. James, a teacher at CHHS and former advisor for the Grizzly Growl, says, “A news system inside of a school is often seen as a means of simple promotion. They neglect to understand that the purpose of a news system is actually to hold different stakeholders accountable and to ensure, you know, the public good to some degree. It’s the Fourth Estate, it’s the means with which we balance information and promote the good of the whole. The schools have a totally different perspective.” 

 

Lucy Hatch

Most schools do not understand the true role of the press, whether student or professional. This is arguably one of the biggest contributors to some newspapers being censored by their administrators.

Take The Telegraph, for example. The ability to fulfill the duties of the press was being restricted in what was believed to be an unfair and biased manner. What are the students supposed to do if something like that happens? As young journalists, there isn’t much that can be done. That is why The Telegraph staff contacted SPLC. But, what if they weren’t aware of the organization and all it could do? Would any change have occurred?

Although the Herriman High students were in this position, not every high school newspaper is. Some papers are censored fairly, and there is a good relationship between the staff and the administrator assigned to them. This is just one experience out of many, many more. Should any school be in this situation, though? Are there others that suffer in silence because they don’t know their rights and legal abilities?

The question is, how can we moderate the censorship of the student press? Some believe that the content published should be extremely censored and controlled. Others are strongly against censorship and advocate for free speech. There has to be some sort of middle ground here. The material associated with the school should be appropriate and should not infringe on the ability of students to learn, but it shouldn’t be overly controlled or filtered. How can this happy medium be found and defined?

There are grassroots organizations in almost every state to reduce high school and college censorship. Although Utah is more conservative on the issue, there’s a movement here, too. Generally speaking, the main purpose of the organization is for students to draft legislation to take to the state. This is known as New Voices legislation. The SPLC reports that seven out of fifty of the States have passed.

Do you think that the student press should be censored? If you don’t, advocate for change. Things will only get better if we make it happen. Let your voice be heard.