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Prior Review

by Shelley Blundell.

Prior Review of student media “refers to the practice of school officials—or anyone in a position of authority outside the editorial staff—demanding that they be allowed to read (or preview) copy prior to publication and/or distribution” (Hiestand, 2002). However, as the National Scholastic Press Association makes clear, Prior Review is different from the concept of Prior Restraint, which in theory allows school officials and/or administrators to intervene on the publishing of content for a variety of reasons (Hiestand, 2002). Although the Supreme Court rulings regarding student media (such as Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier) have not specifically disallowed Prior Review of student publications, many states do have protections against Prior Restraint. In particular, California’s law regarding Prior Restraint alludes to the following regarding what school officials can prohibit in student media publications:

[H]e or she can only stop it [student media] from being published if they find content that is either unlawful (libelous, legally obscene, invasive of privacy as defined by law, etc.) or seriously disruptive of the school. If school officials don’t find material that falls into one of those categories, they must allow it to be published no matter how much they might personally object (Hiestand, 2002).

Although California (and Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Massachusetts, Oregon, most of Pennsylvania and Washington, and individual schools and school districts around the country: Buller, 2010; Hiestand, 2002) provide Prior Restraint protection for student media, this is definitely not the norm. Indeed, as student media organizations such as the National Scholastic Press Association, the Journalism Education Association, and the Center for Scholastic Journalism discuss in numerous links on their websites, as well as at their conferences held around the country each year, Prior Review and Prior Restraint often go hand-in-hand. As the National Scholastic Press Association (Hiestand, 2002) points out, many school policies state that school officials have the right of Prior Review, but instead the officials will practice Prior Restraint (and as opposed to California’s restrictions on such, in ways that have much more to do with personal opinions against content than legitimate arguments against publication of such).

Prior Review (and its link to Prior Restraint) is definitely an infringement on the academic freedom of student media, despite lack of federal legal protections for student media against Rrior Review by school officials. In terms of the decision regarding limiting of student free expression, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier in 1988 definitely lessened protections provided in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District in 1969 regarding who could intervene in content decisions for student publications. However, Hazelwood only ruled on administrative censorship of student media publications that had not been defined, either in policy or through practice, as “open forums.” As many student media publications are considered open forums (Buller, 2010; Proudfoot & Weintraub, 2001), the Supreme Court decision in Hazelwood dictated that “administrators may only interfere [with publication] when there is a valid educational reason for censorship” (Buller, 2010, p. 25). To that end, many student journalists (and indeed, student media advisers) find themselves in a very tough situation—fighting against school officials who demand both Prior Review and Prior Restraint concerning the content of student media, despite the legality (or rather, lack thereof) of school officials to do so. As Buller (2010) points out, much censorship of student media is done very indirectly, through punishment of student media advisers for allowing students no restrictions in terms of publication freedom, and the failure of school officials to “firm up” policies regarding student media so that loopholes to limit student speech are constantly left open.  More on these decisions can be found here.

As Clark and Monserrate (2011) discovered, involvement in the student media process increased the sense of civic engagement for the student journalists they interviewed. However, deleterious interactions with school officials in situations such as fighting against Prior Review also soured many student journalists against full-scale civic involvement. In recounting their experiences with a truly free student media, Proudfoot et al. (2001) stated that students who are given the freedom to publish without Prior Review or Prior Restraint, with the necessary education to do so responsibly, will almost always make sound, ethical, and responsible decisions—lessons that will extend into their adult lives in positive ways. Therefore the issue of Prior Review (and by proxy, Prior Restraint) and its impingement on the academic freedom of student media goes beyond simple censorship—it is an issue of limiting the emotional growth, critical thinking ability, and responsibility and maturity of both student journalists and their peers who watch or read the fruits of student media, as well.

In concluding the section on Prior Review, some thoughts from student media adviser Dianne Smith (published in Proudfoot et al., 2001) are added that highlight why ending Prior Review and censorship of student media is so important:

It will ensure that a diversity of opinions, both popular and unpopular, can be voiced,

It will teach the student journalists that they alone are responsible for their actions and that no one else will accept responsibility for their failures of successes,

It will teach students the importance and necessity of critical thinking skills,

It will teach students the importance of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and will encourage them to honor and embrace these ideals as they grow into mature adults,

It will return to student readers their rights to be informed in a nonthreatening way about issues that affect them,

It will demonstrate to students and the local community that the school not only teaches the concepts put forth in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights but also puts them into practice,

It will provide the local community with a reliable, independent source for school news. (Smith, in Proudfoot et al., 2001).


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

The Center for Scholastic Journalism: http://www.csjkent.org/

Clark, L. S., & Monserrate, R. (2011). High school journalism and the making of young citizens. Journalism, 12, 417-432. doi: 10.1177/1464884910388225

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

The Journalism Education Association: http://jea.org/

The National Scholastic Press Association: http://www.studentpress.org/nspa/

Proudfoot, H., & Weintraub, A. (2001). The voice of freedom. Principal leadership. Retrieved from http://www.splc.org/pdf/principalarticle.pdf

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