Hazelwood School Dist. v. Kuhlmeier

484 U. S. 260

January 13, 1988

A high school published, at its own expense, a newspaper written by students in a journalism class. In one 1983 issue, the principal ordered the removal before publication of articles about student pregnancy and divorce, citing several compelling concerns over anonymity, journalistic ethics, and the mature subject matter. The students claimed that this violated their First Amendment rights from the Tinker case. If this were a Hollywood movie, the dewy-eyed, idealistic kids would have taken that mean ol’ killjoy of a principal all the way to the Supreme Court and won.

Thankfully, it was not a Hollywood movie, and the Supreme Court smacked the snotty little kids down. White wrote for the Court, which ruled 5-3 that the principal had acted reasonably. Because the newspaper was published by the school, and part of the school’s education mission, school administrator’s had a right to oversee its content, and ensure that it met proper standards for distribution to the student body. The school had not intended to create a forum for unsupervised free speech, and the speech exercised in the paper was not private as in Tinker. White concluded by showing that the principal’s censoring had been eminently reasonable (it had even been commended by the editor of a real newspaper).

Brennan, joined by Marshall and Blackmun, quite evidently wanted the Hollywood ending. He moaned that Tinker hadn’t said anything about the effect of school sponsorship, and so it shouldn’t matter. He ominously intimated that the principal was a prude who was hellbent on brutally squashing anything that promoted sexual promiscuity. And he threw in a hearty helping of Monday morning quarterbacking about alternative options the school could have taken when faced with the troubling articles. Hazelwood was predictably greeted by an avalanche of sententious tut-tutting from the press, who also wanted the Hollywood ending badly. Lost in most commentary on the decision was the fact that the principal was totally on point in all his objections.

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