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Landmark Supreme Court Case Decisions

by Shelley Blundell.

Of all the Supreme Court case decisions regarding freedom of speech, free expression, and other First Amendment considerations (particularly the clause protecting freedom of the press), the two case decisions that affect student media the most are:

1) 1969 – Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, and

2) 1988 – Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier.

In particular, Tinker and Hazelwood are often cited in protest of content-censorship decisions made by non-student media personnel (such as school officials), especially if school officials believe they have a right to enact such decisions when a school has a policy regarding Prior Review in place (although, as the wiki entry on Prior Review makes plain, it is Prior Restraint that grants publishing decision authority to school officials, and not Prior Review).

Before discussing how the decisions of these Supreme Court cases have impacted student media in the United States, brief backgrounds on the history of both cases are provided.

Brief background of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, 2013).

Mary Beth Tinker, John Tinker, and Christopher Echardt wore black armbands to school in December, 1965, to protest the Vietnam War.

Principals in the Des Moines School District were concerned that the wearing of the armbands would cause disturbances by other students in the school, and unilaterally decided that students wearing armbands would be asked to remove them or be suspended from school.

When asked to remove their armbands, the Tinkers and Echardt refused. They were suspended from school until after New Years Day in 1966.

The parents of the Tinkers brought suit against the school district for denying the free speech and expression rights of the Tinkers.

Eventually working its way to the Supreme Court, the question put before the court was: “Does a prohibition against the wearing of armbands in public school, as a form of symbolic protest, violate the First Amendment’s freedom of speech protections?” (IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, 2013).

In a 7-for-Tinker, 2-against decision, the Supreme Court decided that “The wearing of armbands was “closely akin to ‘pure speech’” and protected by the First Amendment” (IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, 2013) and further, “The principals had failed to show that the forbidden conduct would substantially interfere with appropriate school discipline” (IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, 2013).

Brief background of Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier (Lomicky, 2000; IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, 2013)

The May, 1983, Hazelwood East High School publication “The Spectrum” was sent to then-principal Robert E. Reynolds for review prior to publication.

Reynolds found two articles in the publication (one on teen pregnancy, and the other on divorce) to be inappropriate for the student body and demanded that the two articles be removed prior to publication of the issue.

Cathy Kuhlmeier and two other high-school journalists brought suit against the school, citing violation of the students’ First Amendment rights.

Eventually working its way to the Supreme Court, the question put before the court was: “Did the principal’s deletion of the articles violate the students’ rights under the First Amendment?”

In a 5-for-Hazelwood, 3-against decision, “the Court held that the First Amendment did not require schools to affirmatively promote particular types of student speech” (IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, 2013).

The Hazelwood decision stated that educators could censor “ungrammatical, poorly written, inadequately researched, biased or prejudiced” content, and that “officials would be allowed to control school-sponsored student expression in non-public forums whenever they could demonstrate they had a valid educational purpose” for doing so (Lomicky, 2000).

Academic freedom and “Tinker” and “Hazelwood”

In terms of academic freedom, Tinker and Hazelwood differed substantially in the area of when school officials could intervene on student expression. The Supreme Court decision for Tinker declared that students “do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,” (Blacher & Weaver, 2013, p. 80), that school officials “do not possess absolute authority over their students” (Kopenhaver, 1995, p. 89), and that “schools could no longer discipline students for expressing their opinion unless it involved a substantial disruption or met other, limited restrictions” (Blacher et al., 2013, p. 80), allowing student media personnel a certain amount of freedom relating to content decisions. However, the Supreme Court decision for Hazelwood declared that “public school officials can censor school-sponsored expression for legitimate educational purposes” (Lomicky, 2000, p. 463) if the ‘school-sponsored expression’ had not been established either through policy or through practice as an open forum for student expression (Kopenhaver, 1995). Although the Hazelwood decision limited academic freedom protections previously afforded by Tinker for student media, one of the biggest points of contention regarding school officials who stand behind the Hazelwood decision as their defense to censor student media is the specification in Hazelwood that limits the decision to student media not established as an open forum. Despite this specification, many school officials who censor student media cite the Hazelwood decision as justification to do so (despite censoring both open forums and content not determined to be “censorable” in the Hazelwood decision). As was explained in the wiki entry on Prior Review, in many cases when student media personnel (including advisers) try to stand up against censorship of student media content by school officials, they often find themselves ‘punished’ in other ways. Because of such action, some states and school districts (namely Arkansas, California, Colorado, Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Massachusetts, Oregon, in most of Pennsylvania and Washington, and in individual schools and school districts around the country – Buller, 2010; Hiestand, 2002; Student Press Law Center, 2007) have afforded student media protections through state laws, with California having one of the most protective laws in place. For more on specific state laws regarding protections for student media, visit the Student Press Law Center page, “Understanding student free-expression laws.”

It is the uneasy reality that although the decisions from Tinker (and to a certain extent Hazelwood as well) protect student media from censorship in a number of ways, and although specific states, school districts, and schools have provided additional protections against censoring for student media, many school officials around the country continue to limit the academic freedom of the student media through both direct and indirect censorship (as was discussed in the wiki entry on Prior Review, and in the research done by Blacher et al., 2013, Fleisher, 2005, and Lomicky, 2000). Although the student media personnel at schools where this occurs may feel powerless to prevent such censorship, organizations such as the Student Press Law Center, the Center for Scholastic Journalism and many local and state scholastic press associations (including the National Scholastic Press Association) have long offered their assistance and services to student media who would fight against wrongful and inappropriate school censorship. To that end, although misapplication of decisions from both Tinker and Hazelwood can temporarily hamper the rights of student media, resources do exist to help student media professionals and their advisers fight for academic freedom.


Buller, T. (2010). Stirring the pot. American School Board Journal, 24-26. Retrieved from http://www.splc.org/pdf/StirringthePot_Buller.pdf

Fleisher, C. (2005, February 1). Vermont considers censorship protections for student media. Eagle Times. Retrieved from Newspaper Source.

Hiestand, M. (2002). Prior review vs. prior restraint. The National Scholastic Press Association. Retrieved from http://www.studentpress.org/nspa/trends/~law0602hs.html

IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. (2013). Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier. Oyez. Retrieved from http://www.oyez.org/cases/1980-1989/1987/1987_86_836

IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. (2013). Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District. Oyez. Retrieved from http://lis60650roland.iwiki.kent.edu/Censorship+of+student+media+%28primary+and+secondary+level%29+-+Academic+freedom+vs.+administrative+concerns

Kopenhaver, L. L. (1995). Censorship becomes way of life for high school journalists. Contemporary Education, 66, 89-91.

Lomicky, C. S. (2000). Analysis of high school newspaper editorials before and after Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier: a content analysis case study. Journal of Law and Education, 29, 463-476.

Student Press Law Center. (2007). Understanding student free-expression laws. Legal Analysis, 28, 30. Retrieved from http://www.splc.org/news/report_detail.asp?id=1351&edition=43

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