Legal Brief: Hazelwood School District et al. v. Kuhlmeier et al., 484 U.S. 260

Facts of the Case

The principal who normally reviewed the paper prior to publication deleted two pages to remove two articles regarding teen pregnancy and divorce.

The Vote

Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier  was decided on January 13, 1988. The 5-3 vote reversed the decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in St. Louis, which had upheld the rights of the students. Justice Byron White wrote the Court’s majority opinion, which was joined by Justices Rehnquist, Stevens, O’Connor and Scalia. Justice William Brennan filed a dissenting opinion that was joined by Justices Marshall and Blackmun.

The Law and/or Constitutional Provisions at Issue

The ruling was that their First Amendment rights were not violated because it “does not compel a public school to affirmatively sponsor speech that conflicts with its “legitimate pedagogical goals.” The school-financed newspaper at issue was also not considered to be a public forum under the totality of circumstances present in the case, and therefore, its editors were entitled to a lower level of First Amendment protection than is applicable to independent student newspapers or those newspapers that have, by policy or practice, opened their pages to student opinion.”

The Legal Questions

Is student free speech protected in the publication of a newspaper? Is a student paper considered a public forum?

The Opinion of the Court

Held that public school curricular student newspapers that have not been established as forums for student expression are subject to a lower level of First Amendment protection than independent student expression or newspapers established (by policy or practice) as forums for student expression. Under the First Amendment, school officials can censor non-forum student newspapers when they can justify their decision by stating a legitimate educational purpose. However, this does not allow school officials to censor articles wantonly or based on personal opinion, as shown in Dean v. Utica.

Concurring/Dissenting Opinions

In his sharp dissent, Justice Brennan said that he found the newspaper at Hazelwood  East to be a “forum established to give students an opportunity to express their views….” He said that the Court should have applied the Tinker  standard. Brennan said that the censorship at Hazelwood  East ” aptly illustrates how readily school officials (and courts) can camouflage viewpoint discrimination as the ‘mere’ protection of students from sensitive topics.” Brennan characterized the school’s censorship as indefensible.

Evaluation of the Case

It only applies to school-sponsored student publications that are not public forums for expression by students. Underground, alternative and even extracurricular student publications still retain much stronger First Amendment protections.

The Court’s opinion mentions three different criteria that it might look to for determining if a publication is school-sponsored and thus covered by the Hazelwood  decision: 1) Is it supervised by a faculty member? 2) Was the publication designed to impart particular knowledge or skills to student participants or audiences? and 3) Does the publication use the school’s name or resources?10 The first two criteria seem to be the most important. Under the second criteria, a publication that is an extracurricular activity rather than part of a class sounds as if it could still be covered by Hazelwood.  But in two federal court cases, judges have said that extracurricular publications may be beyond Hazelwood ‘s reach.

Requests for assistance received by the SPLC from high school students and advisers around the country indicated that the Hazelwood  decision has had at least one significant effect: a dramatic increase in the amount of censorship. From 1988 to 1989, calls for help received by the Center increased by 12 percent. In the first four months of 1990, the number of calls was up over 170 percent from the same period in 1989. Student publications are reporting censorship of articles, editorials and advertisements that were perceived as “controversial” or that might cast the school in a negative light. Advisers are reporting threats to their jobs if they refuse to follow school officials’ orders to censor. And almost all student journalists and advisers said that they attributed the censorship at least in part to the Hazelwood decision.


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