10 Things That Aren't Free Speech

School Newspapers
Co-editor-in-chiefs Alisha Compton and Erin Fowler (blue shirt) deliver the Chantilly High School (Virginia) newspaper during lunchtime. The school is one of the few where the principal does not vet student publications in advancce. Kate Patterson for The Washington Post via Getty Images

It seems so clear: Since professional journalists have boatloads of First Amendment protections regarding freedom of speech, so must budding high school journalists working on their school newspapers or yearbooks.

But it isn't so. Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, stipulates that public school officials get to decide what is printed in school publications, not the student journalists. Although school officials do need a valid educational reason for censoring a given article or photo, they still have rather broad rights, partly because schools aren't considered open, public forums [source: Hudson Jr.].

The ruling came from a 1983 incident at Hazelwood East High in Missouri. Students were planning articles on teen pregnancy and the impact of divorce on teenagers when their principal nixed them. The pregnancy article wasn't suitable for younger students, the principal said, plus it created privacy concerns by including pregnant students, even though under fake names.

Some students sued all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the principal. Justice Byron Write wrote, "Educators do not offend the First Amendment by exercising editorial control over the style and content of student speech in school-sponsored expressive activities so long as their actions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns." The decision remains controversial, as it allows school officials to forbid articles associated with heated political issues; some say this means administrators can censor anything that would place the school or district in an unfavorable light [source: Hudson Jr.].

Since then, some states have passed laws to give greater free speech protection to school journalists and students.