May a public school official legally censor a school-sponsored publication, like a newspaper or yearbook?

Wednesday, May 22, 2002

It depends. If the school has by policy or practice turned the school-sponsored publication into a public forum, or a place traditionally open to the free exchange of ideas, then the school has less authority to censor content. However, most school newspapers are not public forums, and because of a 1988 Supreme Court decision, school officials generally have broad leeway to censor school-sponsored publications.

In Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, the high court ruled that school officials can censor school-sponsored publications if their decision is “reasonably related to a legitimate pedagogical purpose.” This means school officials must show that they have a reasonable educational reason for censoring the material.

The high court gave several examples of material that could be censored based on a reasonable educational purpose, including material that is “ungrammatical, poorly written, inadequately researched, biased or prejudiced, vulgar or profane, or unsuitable for immature audiences.”

The court went so far as to say that under the Hazelwood standard, school officials could censor school-sponsored materials which would “associate the school with anything other than neutrality on matters of political controversy.”

Student advocates decried the Hazelwood decision as blatant censorship that would lead to a drastic reduction in students’ First Amendment rights. For this reason, several states passed so-called “anti-Hazelwood laws” that grant student journalists more protection. Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Massachusetts and Oregon passed such laws after the decision. (California already had a law protecting student journalists.)