Hazelwood limits teacher speech, too

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Comment? E-mail me

When First Amendment advocates hear the name Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, they naturally think of student-press rights or, more accurately, a diminution of student-press rights. But a recent ruling shows it's more than that.

In Hazelwood (1988), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a public school principal did not violate the First Amendment when he ordered the deletion of two articles in the student newspaper dealing with the topics of teen pregnancy and the impact of divorce upon teens. The majority said public school officials may constitutionally censor school-sponsored student speech when they have a reasonable basis for doing so. Officials merely have to show that their reasons for censorship were “reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.”

Now comes a Jan. 22 federal district court decision out of New York shows that Hazelwood limits teacher speech, too. In Weingarten v. Board of Education of the City School District of the City of New York, the court upheld a New York City school regulation banning teachers from wearing political campaign buttons.

School-board authorities asserted a rational reason for the regulation: to prevent students from thinking that the school endorsed the political views advocated by teachers. They also argued that allowing such political expression might interfere with the school’s educational mission.

The district court accepted these reasons in its opinion, relying on Hazelwood: “Hazelwood and its progeny establish that a school board’s determination that opinions conveyed by teacher-worn political buttons might reasonably be perceived to bear the school’s imprimatur or otherwise interfere with the defendants’ public mission is entitled to a degree of deference because it is expert in these matters.”

The district court also recognized another “legitimate pedagogical concern” offered by the school board — the school board’s “wish to maintain neutrality on controversial issues.”

So next time you hear about Hazelwood and student rights, remember that the case limits the free-expression rights of teachers as well.

Comment? E-mail me