May a public school legally censor an off-campus, ‘underground’ student publication?

Wednesday, May 22, 2002

Generally, schools may not censor underground student newspapers because those papers are not school-sponsored. If the underground paper is not distributed on campus, school officials have no legal authority to regulate it.

Even if the papers are distributed on school grounds, the First Amendment imposes limitations on school officials’ ability to censor these publications because of content. Public school officials, however, may impose reasonable time, place and manner restrictions on the distribution of underground newspapers.

There are exceptions to the general rule of “no censorship.” If school officials can show that the publication caused or would likely cause a substantial disruption of school activities, they may be able to limit or even stop distribution. Or if school officials could show that the publication contained true threats, they may be able to restrict distribution.

A pressing issue regarding underground student newspapers is whether school officials have the power to require students to submit the papers for review before they can be distributed on school grounds. Courts are divided on whether such prior review policies violate students’ First Amendment rights, and the Supreme Court has not considered the issue.