Hazelwood’s Devastating Impact on Student Journalism: An Exclusive Interview with SPLC’s Frank LoMonte

Devastation.  According to Student Press Law Center Executive Director Frank LoMonte, the impact of the Hazelwood ruling on student journalism in this country has been nothing short of sheer devastation.

In a recent column, University of Wisconsin-Madison student journalist Pam Selman similarly referred to Hazelwood as an “infectious disease … quietly spreading across the country, harming students at college campuses and high schools alike.” For his part, law professor Richard Peltz-Steele has described it as a long-term “censorship tsunami.”

The storm formed in the early 1980s, when the principal of East Hazelwood High School in St. Louis, Mo., objected to a pair of stories produced by journalism students for The Spectrum school newspaper. The principal deemed the stories– on teen pregnancy and a classmate coping with her parents’ divorce– editorially unsound and unfit for an adolescent audience. Prior to the paper’s publication, he pulled the pages containing the pieces. In response, the Spectrum’s student editor and two reporters sued.

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Roughly five years later, the Supreme Court ruled in the school’s favor. The landmark January 1988 decision in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier was a giant step back for student press and speech rights. Unlike an earlier Supreme Court ruling that established the so-called Tinker Standard, the Hazelwood decision declared students do shed some of their Constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate.

Currently, close to 30 years after the Spectrum first filed its controversial stories and 25 years after the Supreme Court ruled on the case, Hazelwood’s reach has expanded far beyond journalism, secondary schools, school-sponsored speech, and print publications.

In a recent interview timed to coincide with the milestone anniversaries, LoMonte provided eight basic truths about Hazelwood’s continued visible and invisible impact and how the ruling can be neutralized.

Truth #1: Hazelwood is a presence at the college level.  “When Hazelwood was first decided back in 1988 there was this long period where everybody in the legal and journalism community proceeded under the assumption that it was a case about children,” said LoMonte. “That was a safe assumption for a while, but it’s proving not to be any longer. The federal courts increasingly are looking to Hazelwood as providing the governing First Amendment legal standard for anyone at all who is a student, no matter how old, no matter how mature, no matter the level of education.”

For example, in 2011, a federal district court cited Hazelwood to support a decision by Auburn University at Montgomery to remove a 51-year-old graduate student from its nursing program. The student argued she had been unlawfully expelled for speaking out about perceived problems with the program’s disciplinary policies.

To read the rest of my Poynter piece, click here or on the screenshot below.

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