Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier | Study Guide

U.S. Supreme Court

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Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier | Summary & Analysis



Background to Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier

Students at Hazelwood East High School in St. Louis County, Missouri, brought suit against their school district, charging their free speech rights had been violated. The students were writers and editors of Spectrum, the school newspaper. They planned an edition with stories about pregnant students and students coping with their parents' divorces. The principal objected to these articles, believing that they were inappropriate and that they violated the privacy of some students and parents. With the publication date nearing, he deleted the two pages with those stories, allowing the rest of the paper to be published. Three students filed suit, claiming that the action violated their First Amendment rights. The district court ruled in favor of the principal and school district. The court of appeals reversed that decision, finding in favor of the students. The Hazelwood School District of St. Louis, Missouri, appealed that decision to the United States Supreme Court.

Two prior court decisions provided important precedents. In Tinker v. Des Moines (1969), the court ruled 7–2 that the school system had violated students' free speech rights when it suspended them for wearing black armbands in protest of the Vietnam War (1955–75). The majority decision said that the Des Moines school district was wrong in banning symbolic speech that was "not disruptive of school discipline or decorum."

In 1986 the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of school administrators in Bethel School District No. 43 v. Fraser. In that case a student was suspended for using language judged as profane when making a speech at a school assembly. In its decision, the majority differentiated between the political speech protected in Tinker and the vulgar speech legitimately limited in Fraser.

Supreme Court Decision in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier

The court ruled on January 13, 1988, finding in favor of the principal and school district. Justice Byron R. White wrote the Hazelwood decision. He was joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist (1924–2005) and Justices John Paul Stevens (1920–2019), Sandra Day O'Connor (b. 1930), and Antonin Scalia (1936-2016). The case was heard by eight justices because one seat on the court was empty. Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. (1907–98) had resigned in June of 1987 and had not yet been replaced.

The first section of the Hazelwood decision is a syllabus. This is a summary of the key points of the decision. It outlines the facts of the case and the key points of the legal argument and decision. The Hazelwood summary explains that the justices found that the principal's actions in deleting articles involving teen pregnancy and parents' divorces were reasonable.

Ruling: Principal's Concerns are Valid

White's opinion is divided into three parts. In Part I White summarizes the facts of the case. He mentions Principal Robert Reynolds had three major concerns regarding the material selected for deletion. First, facts in the article could be used to identify the pregnant students mentioned in the article, even though the specific students were not named. Second, the discussion of sex and birth control was not, Reynolds thought, appropriate for younger students in the school. Third, he believed that the parent identified in the story about divorced parents should have a chance to respond to his daughter's criticisms. The paper was to be the last of the year, and time was short to make alterations to the articles and still meet the publishing deadline.

Ruling: Hazelwood and Tinker are Different

In Part II White presents his analysis of the First Amendment issues. He quotes the central finding in Tinker, a ringing defense of student's speech rights: "Students in the public schools do not 'shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.'" White then hedges this protection, saying it applies to the expression of "personal views." He also cites earlier Supreme Court cases that placed limits on students' free speech rights.

In Part II-A Brennan says that Spectrum, the school newspaper, is not a public forum, disagreeing with court of appeals. Rather, he says, the paper is "part of the educational curriculum, and a 'regular classroom activit[y].'" This distinction sets up how the majority casts Hazelwood as different from Tinker. The Tinker ruling upheld students' free speech rights but left the door open to limiting speech that "materially disrupts classwork."

In Part II-B White explicitly distinguishes between the situations in Tinker and Hazelwood. He contends that school newspapers and similar activities—such as school plays—allow for more control by school officials because they are part of the school curriculum. White also makes a distinction between tolerating and promoting certain types of speech. He argues that Tinker addressed whether a school must tolerate certain student speech, while Hazelwood considers whether schools are required to promote such speech.

In Part III White defends the principal's actions, saying that Reynolds "acted reasonably." Though the article changed the names of the pregnant girls, they could have been easily identified through facts presented in the article. It was also "not unreasonable," White writes, for the principal to conclude that the girls' "frank talk" about sexual activity and birth control was "inappropriate" for a school with 14-year-old students. Similarly, the principal was reasonable in objecting to the article about divorce. At the time Reynolds reviewed the article, it identified the father who was criticized. The sponsoring teacher had decided to edit out the name, but the principal did not know that.

White concludes that the Hazelwood students' First Amendment rights were not violated. The majority overturns the court of appeals decision, upholding the right of schools to limit some types of student expression.

Brennan's Dissent in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier

Justice William J. Brennan Jr. wrote a passionate dissent. He had been part of the majority in both Tinker and Fraser. He was joined by Justice Thurgood Marshall (1908–93), part of the majority in Tinker and a dissenter in Fraser. Justice Harry A. Blackmun (1908–99), who joined the majority in Fraser, also joined Brennan's dissent in Hazelwood.

Brennan opens his dissent by referring to a Statement of Policy published in Spectrum. That statement asserts the First Amendment rights of the students working on the newspaper, within the boundaries set by the Tinker decision. He then castigates Principal Reynolds for betraying the promise implied in that statement and for violating the students' First Amendment rights.

Brennan and White differ sharply on this Statement of Policy. Brennan says it was "tacitly approved each year" by school officials. White, in a footnote in his majority opinion, says that the statement did not necessarily appear in the paper more than once. However, this disagreement is essentially a sideshow. The real issue is whether the principal's action violated the First Amendment.

In Part I of his dissent, Brennan focuses on that question. He says that Tinker enshrined the principle that student speech could only be punished if it "materially disrupts classwork or involves substantial disorder or invasion of the rights of others." Brennan quibbles with the majority's analysis of the symbolic speech in Tinker as "personal expression that happens to occur on the school premises." He points out that the Tinker decision did not base its defense of the students on those grounds. Rather, that case held that students have the same fundamental constitutional rights that any other person has. Brennan also pokes at the majority, writing that the decision in Fraser was based on the nature of the speech and not on the setting of a school assembly. Again, White responds in a footnote. Fraser, he asserts, was decided on the grounds that the exceptional speech took place at a school assembly.

In Part II Brennan dismisses the majority's defense of the principal's actions as "no more than an obscure tangle of three excuses." In Part II-A Brennan attacks the majority's argument that the principal acted rightly because the newspaper was in a "curricular context." Brennan says Principal Reynolds made only a perfunctory effort to explain his actions. Given that, Reynolds' actions could hardly be viewed as delivering a strong pedagogical message.

In Part II-B Brennan attacks the majority position that the principal had a legitimate right to protect younger students from objectionable subjects. He objects to the majority's argument that student speech on potentially sensitive topics can be censored. The concept of potentially sensitive topics is too vague and subjective to serve as a standard for what kind of student speech can be limited, Brennan argues. In Part II-C White agrees that the principal had an interest in disassociating the school administration from the articles. But, he says, the principal had opportunity for less drastic means of achieving that goal.

In Part III Brennan asserts his view that the articles should have been published. He harshly criticizes the principal for the "brutal manner" in which he censored the articles and his failure to try to find a compromise solution.

In Part IV Brennan turns his ire on the majority for, he says, ignoring Tinker. He also stresses that supporting the principal's actions teaches students the wrong lesson about free speech and rights in general.

Impact of Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier

The Hazelwood decision did not give school officials unlimited control over student speech. It applied only to school-sponsored activities in public school systems. Under the majority decision, its terms would not apply to speech in a public forum and publications not sponsored by the school. Lower courts extended the decision in later years to include other activities, such as student art shows.

Some argue that the decision had a chilling effect on student speech. According to the Student Press Law Center—an interest group promoting students' First Amendment rights—school censorship increased after Hazelwood. However, a few states passed laws that provided more speech rights to students than were available under this decision. In 2005 a federal appeals court ruled in Hosty v. Carter that Hazelwood extended to school-sponsored publications at public colleges and universities. Previous appeals court decisions had declined to apply the ruling in that way, and the Hosty ruling applies only in the states of the Seventh Circuit Court—Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin. The decision was appealed, but the Supreme Court declined to take up the case.

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