What rights do we have to express ourselves as students? The Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier decision specifically deals with school censorship of student-run newspapers. Students taking part in a journalism class at Hazelwood East High School helped to edit and write the school paper. Three students had written an article detailing the experiences of some students with teen pregnancy, and another discussing the impact of divorce on students at the school. The school had a policy requiring the paper’s faculty advisor to submit proofs to the school principal before the paper could be published. The principal believed that the article regarding teen pregnancy was inappropriate for younger students as well as objecting to the discussion of sexual activity and birth control, and objected to the divorce article because a student who had complained about her father’s conduct was identified by name. The principal directed that the pages on which these articles appeared should be withheld from publication.
The US District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri sided with the principal, while the Eighth Circuit court sided with the students. The Supreme Court, however, found that the student’s first amendment rights had not been violated. Justice White wrote in the majority opinion “First Amendment rights of students in the public schools are not automatically coextensive with the rights of adults in other settings and must be applied in light of the special characteristics of the school environment. 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.” This ruling gives high schools the right to censor newspapers and to restrict countless forms of expression; among them: theatrical productions, yearbooks, creative writing assignments, and campaign and graduation speeches.
Thankfully, the courts have ruled repeatedly that the Hazelwood restrictions do not apply to most college journalists. There is a wealth of case law that makes it clear that school officials cannot “censor or confiscate a publication, withdraw or reduce its funding, withhold student activities fees, prohibit lawful advertising, fire an editor or adviser, stack a student media board, discipline staff members or take any other action that is motivated by an attempt to control, manipulate or punish past or future content (Joyner v Whiting 1973, Schiff v. Williams 1973, Leuth v. St. Clair County Comm. College 1990, Kincaid v Gibson 2001)” or “demand the right to review publications before distribution (Antonelli v Hammond 1970)”; student government officials are held to the same restraints as school administrators in issues involving media censorship, as well.
When viewed through the lens of this wealth of precedent, the history of the Seattle Central newspapers is all the more startling. In addition to shutting down the paper in 2008, the news office was raided, computers and documents were cleaned out, and the newspaper’s staff was locked out. While the administration at that time claimed the decision to “temporarily suspend” the newspaper’s publication was due to the lack of a faculty advisor, the school also completely axed the journalism program at Seattle Central. Journalism has not been a course offering since.
In an interview with Capitol Hill Seattle in 2015, Mohamed Adan, editor of the Central Circuit said, “Our intention is not to ruffle any feathers, our intention is to report the news.” The Central Circuit would be shut down as well in 2016, with the administration again citing the lack of a faculty advisor as its reason.
The Washington Administrative Code that governs the Seattle Colleges district states (1) The primary purpose of student publications is to promote free and responsible discussion of campus and community issues and (4) Student newspapers shall be free of censorship. These policies were filed 7/28/2003, and effective 8/28/2003, five years prior to The City Collegian’s demise and 13 years prior to the events that shuttered The Central Circuit. The fact patterns are clear; prior administrations at this school used their authority to censor protected speech, and that legacy will be hard to transcend. It is worth noting that none of the faculty or administration officials involved in closing previous iterations of our school newspapers are still at Seattle Central.
On February 2, 2017, Ricardo Leyva-Puebla hosted an open discussion about the future of our school’s media, which is archived on the SCC Library YouTube channel. Near the end of his presentation, he said, “If we have a good, selfless publications board, which means they’re there to support the development of the students and not there to put their own selves forward, that would probably be helpful, and I’m not sure we’ve done a good job of that.”
It is a giant step in the right direction for a member of the current administration to admit this, but it doesn’t go far enough. Given the events surrounding past closures of the school paper, we need our administration to stand up and say unequivocally that they support the rights of the student press to investigate and report on issues that affect the Seattle Central community, even if that reporting is unfavorable to the administration, and that they will not interfere with student publications except in cases of gross negligence by the writers or editorial board.
When our freedoms as members of the press to investigate and report news that is of gravity and consequence to our constituencies are censored or otherwise thwarted, it creates a chilling effect that leads to less news of import being printed. This is how we end up with a million stories chronicling the contents of one’s Twitter feed rather than stories that dig deeper into the machinations of those in power. Journalists fearing repercussions from authority will self-censor; given the history of this school’s newspaper, I’m having second thoughts about whether to publish what’s been written here.
Journalism, at its core, is sparked by curiosity; the desire to understand more about the world around us, to dig deeply into the problems and issues within our communities, and to share our findings with those around us. Not only do we deserve the chance to investigate and write about things relevant to us, but we also should be able to investigate wrong-doings by school administrations and other officials and report on them to our fellow students without fear of repercussions. The ability to speak truth to power is a crucial cornerstone of democracy, and the press’ part in that is sacrosanct.