Justices OK Censorship by Schools : Say Educators Can Control Content of Pupil Publications

Times Staff Writer

Public school officials have broad powers to censor school newspapers, the Supreme Court declared Wednesday in a decision that restricts the protection high school journalists may claim under the First Amendment.

On a 5-3 vote, the high court ruled that a principal in Hazelwood, Mo., did not violate students' rights to free speech by deleting from a student newspaper articles on teen-age pregnancy and the impact of divorce. The students had no legal right to publish the controversial articles, the court said, because the paper was owned and controlled by the school.

"We hold that 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," Justice Byron R. White wrote for the court.

sh 'Unsuitable' Material

In deleting two pages from the Hazelwood East High School Spectrum in 1983, Principal Robert Reynolds said he believed that the material was "inappropriate and unsuitable" reading for teen-agers.

The article on pregnancy consisted of personal accounts by three pregnant Hazelwood East students, whose real names were not used. The girls' reactions to their pregnancies, the reactions of their parents, their plans for the future and details of their sex lives were discussed. The story on divorce quoted from interviews with students.

Journalism students Cathy Kuhlmeier, Lee Ann Tippett-West and Leslie Smart initiated the case by suing Reynolds and other school officials on grounds that their freedom of speech had been violated.

sh Issue of 'Public Forum'

A federal trial judge ruled against the students, but the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the suit. It ruled that the Spectrum is a "public forum" because it was intended to be and was operated as a conduit for student viewpoints.

But the Supreme Court ruled that the Spectrum is not, and never was, a public forum.

"School officials did not evince . . . any intent to open the pages of Spectrum to indiscriminate use by its student reporters and editors, or by the student body generally," White said.

"Instead, they reserved the forum for its intended purpose, as a supervised learning experience for journalism students. Accordingly, school officials were entitled to regulate the contents of Spectrum in any reasonable manner," he said.

It was the third time in three years that the high court has ruled that students do not have the same constitutional rights as adults.

In 1985, the court ruled that students are not protected from "unreasonable searches" as adult citizens are under the Fourth Amendment. Instead, their lockers and purses may be searched by a school official who suspects that they contain drugs, the justices said. The next year, the court said that a student could be suspended for making a speech during a school assembly that school officials considered "offensive."

The rulings underscore a change in direction from the more liberal Warren Court, which declared in a 1969 decision on students' rights to wear protest armbands that young people "do not shed their constitutional rights . . . at the schoolhouse gate."

The case decided Wednesday differs, White said, because it concerns a "school-sponsored" publication overseen by a journalism instructor. "Accordingly, school officials were entitled to regulate the contents of the Spectrum in any reasonable manner," White said.

sh Educational Mission Cited

"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," White said, declaring that judicial intervention to protect students' free-speech rights is warranted "only when the decision to censor a school-sponsored publication, theatrical production or other vehicle of student expression has no valid educational purpose."

He said that the court's opinion does not apply to a newspaper sponsored by a college or university or an "underground" newspaper that is printed off campus.

In dissent, Justice William J. Brennan Jr., the court's liberal leader, blasted his colleagues for endorsing "official censorship" by government officials.

"The mere fact of school sponsorship does not . . . license thought control in the high school," Brennan wrote. "The young men and women of Hazelwood East expected a civics lesson (in their journalism course), but not the one the court teaches them today." He was joined by Justices Thurgood Marshall and Harry A. Blackmun.

"Such unthinking contempt for individual rights is intolerable from any state official," Brennan said of the principal's action. "It is particularly insidious from one to whom the public entrusts the task of inculcating in its youth an appreciation for the cherished democratic liberties that our Constitution guarantees."

sh Key Vote by Stevens

The key vote was cast by Justice John Paul Stevens, a moderate who usually backs free speech claims. In this case, he simply joined White's opinion. If the justices had split 4 to 4 in the case, the student editors, who had filed suit to protest the censorship, would have won because a federal appeals court had ruled in their favor (Hazelwood School District vs. Kuhlmeier, 86-836).

"This is pretty frightening," said Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Washington. "School newspapers are often the only avenue young people have for expressing their views, and this opinion says school officials can cut off that avenue whenever they disagree with what the students are saying."

Ivan Gluckman, counsel for the National Assn. of Secondary School Principals in Reston, Va., countered that most high school principals do not want to censor school newspapers but that they must have the final word on what is printed.

"They are responsible for what comes out in the newspaper," Gluckman said, just like a chief editor is responsible for what appears in a regular newspaper. "No reporter has an unfettered right to publish whatever he wants in the paper," he said.

sh California Not Affected

In California, state education officials said that the Supreme Court ruling will not affect California students because the case did not specifically challenge state laws. The California education code grants students broader rights to freedom of speech and press than the U.S. Constitution. The high court ruling addressed "only the First Amendment and (thus) does not alter the rights which California public school students have under state law," Education Department spokesman Bill Rukeyser said.

"The decision would have had to say that states do not have the right to convey these rights and immunities to a select group . . . but the case brought to the Supreme Court did not have anything to do with laws passed by individual states."

In the Los Angeles Unified School District, however, Richard K. Mason, a special counsel to the superintendent, called the decision "a victory for education" that supports a school board policy, in effect since 1978, prohibiting publication of material that is libelous, profane, violates an individual's right to privacy, advocates violence or unlawful activities or criticizes a particular religion, sex, race or ethnic group.

"We will need to look at the (Supreme Court) decision to determine its impact," Mason said. "But it does seem appropriate. Censorship is not the right way to look at this . . . . The court has affirmed an educational view of student journalism that involves the educators in the process as articles are developed rather than as punishers after the fact."

sh ACLU Concerns Voiced

Gary Williams, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union in Los Angeles, said that, even though California law affords greater freedom of expression to high school students, the Supreme Court ruling may still "encourage principals to engage in exactly the same forms of censorship" as were involved in the Hazelwood case.

At least one Los Angeles district principal who was recently involved in censoring a student publication agreed. "It was regrettable that I had to exercise" censorship, said Robert R. Beck, principal of Evergreen High School, a continuation high school in Sylmar. "But I do feel I have that right. After today's decision, I am sure I am on the right track. It gives principals a wider range of opportunity to censor."

Beck deleted a line from an article in the campus newspaper, Off the Press, that he found potentially offensive.

Times Education Writer Elaine Woo contributed to this story from Los Angeles.

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