Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Students' First Amendment Rights: Remembering Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier

To: Dr. John Patzwald, Superintendent; Roger Johnson, Principal; David Briggs, English Department Chairman

From: Glen Brown, Lion Advisor

Subject: Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier

Date: February 1, 1988

As a result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision regarding Hazelwood School District v. Cathy Kuhlmeier, it seems that we may impose “reasonable” restrictions on students’ speech since the Lion is not “a public forum” to be used indiscriminately by the general public. It is a curricular activity in a laboratory setting as stated in its policy.

Second, we might infer that we should retain control over what constitutes “reasonable journalism” in the Lion. After all, the Lion is a supervised learning experience for practicing journalism students. This has always been the case.

Third, we might also infer that it is important that students are not exposed to material that may be “inappropriate for their level of maturity” and that the views of the writer in the Lion be not attributed to Lyons Township High School. The Lion actually publishes a disclaimer to this fact. Nonetheless, Lyons Township High School must maintain its high standards for student speech disseminated under its auspices. I believe we have upheld the highest ethics and values in this regard.

However, so vague and ambiguous is the terminology of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision that we can see how “legitimate pedagogical concerns,” “conduct inconsistent with the shared values of a civilized order,” and “material too sensitive or inappropriate for student maturity” might be interpreted to camouflage discrimination and, indeed, give us the power to censor unpleasant or so-called unpopular viewpoints. I do not doubt our school’s integrity; however, I hope there are not people within our community who would like to suppress student beliefs for the “mere desire to avoid discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompany an unpopular viewpoint.”

It has never been the purpose of the Lion to teach students that they should not report “bad news, express unpopular views, or print that which might upset” the school board, administration, teachers and the community.

Mere school sponsorship should never justify suppression of student speech. Allowing student expression, though it might offer views contrary to those who wish to inculcate particular perspectives, should still be championed by the Lion as stated in its policy. Furthermore, it is stated in our Mission Statement that we “create an atmosphere of encouragement, trust and mutual respect… [One that] fosters… full intellectual growth of each student… [and one that allows for] development of critical thinking and problem solving…” Let's not forget it wasn’t long ago when “students [did] not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate” (Tinker v. Des Moines, February 1969). 

My concerns, in addition to the aforementioned, are whether my role as the advisor has now been redefined and the possibility of outside pressures from parents who will interpret the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in such a way as to justify their own prejudices and their demands to avoid controversy and, thus, suppress subsequent student articles in the Lion.

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