Students’ limited freedom of speech, expression


Today, January 13, 2018, is the thirtieth anniversary of Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, one of the two landmark Supreme Court decisions that delineate students’ First Amendment rights. Let’s mark the occasion by reviewing these two cases which have, over the past 50 years, shaped the debate regarding students’ freedom of expression.

Tinker v. Des Moines – freedom of expression

The first case, Tinker v. Des Moines, began in 1965, when three teens in Des Moines, Iowa wore black armbands to school to protest the Vietnam War. School officials objected, fearing that the students’ silent protest would provoke unrest, but the students refused to remove the armbands. The students were suspended and their families sued, arguing that the students’ First Amendment right of free speech had been violated. The case reached the Supreme Court, which sided with the students, mostly. The majority opinion found that schools cannot censor students’ freedom of expression simply “based upon an urgent wish to avoid the controversy which might result from the expression.” However, the Court cautioned that students’ First Amendment rights are not unlimited, stating that student conduct which “materially disrupts classwork or involves substantial disorder or invasion of the rights of others is, of course, not immunized by the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech.”

Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier – freedom of the press

Another First Amendment freedom – freedom of the press – was at the heart of Hazelwood. In that case, student reporters and editors of a high school newspaper in suburban St. Louis were prohibited from publishing two stories, one about teen pregnancy and the other about the impact of divorce. The school’s principal deleted the two articles, primarily out of concern that the identities of students interviewed in the pieces could be identified and subjected to harassment. In this case, the Supreme Court ruled against the students, reasoning that school newspapers are not a public forum in which anyone can voice an opinion. Rather, the Hazelwood paper was “a supervised learning experience for students interested in journalism.” This curricular link allowed school administrators to exercise control over the paper’s content.

At first glance, the two cases may seem inconsistent. Tinker says that students have a right to express their opinions in a school setting. Hazelwood, by contrast, says that students’ freedom of expression can be overridden by school administrators.

But a closer reading reveals nuanced differences. In Tinker, the protection of students’ rights is broad but not unlimited; the majority decision clearly states that a critical factor was that the students’ protest – the wearing of black armbands – did not create a disturbance or interfere with the rights of other students. Of course, the student actions involved in Hazelwood likewise did not create a disturbance or interfere with others. How could they, since the articles were never published? But in this case, the Court focused on the fact that the student newspaper was published as part of a journalism class and thus had an educational objective. This pedagogical link gave school officials the right to censor the student paper if they reasonably believed its content would be disruptive or harmful to their education mission. So, both Tinker and Hazelwood stand as precedents, and each has been cited in subsequent cases involving students’ First Amendment rights.

It’s doubtful our Founding Fathers were mindful of black armbands and school newspapers, but as society evolves, so, too, does the legal landscape of what is acceptable, permissible, and guaranteed within the Constitution’s framework. Tinker and Hazelwood are evidence of the Supreme Court’s role in meeting these ever-changing needs.