TINKER V. DES MOINES (1969)
Our story starts in the height of the Vietnam War, with a middle school girl by the name of Mary Beth Tinker and her older brother John Tinker. The siblings are famous for protesting what they perceived as the war’s injustices by donning black armbands to wear to their Des Moines, Iowa public schools.
The Tinkers’ school administrators, to say the least, were not pleased with their display of activism. In fact, a new policy was quickly adopted by Des Moines district to stop students from participating in such protests. The policy stated that students who refused to comply with their new “no-armband” policy would be subject to suspension if they didn’t remove the bands.
As this was a blatant disregard for students’ first amendment rights throughout the district in a public school, John and Mary Beth persisted with their protest. They were suspended in December 1965 and returned the following January, but not before their parents filed a lawsuit against the school in U.S. District Court for infringing upon the Tinker siblings’ first amendment right to freedom of expression. This sparked the infamous Tinker v. Des Moines (1969) Supreme Court case. While the District Court ruled in favor of the Des Moines Public School District, the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Tinker family when they appealed.
“It can hardly be argued that either the students or the teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,” Justice Abe Fortas said during the 1969 Supreme Court case, four years after the original suspension.
To make a long story short, hurrah! Public school students, including student journalists, retain their first amendment rights -including that of the press- inside the schoolhouse gates. This set the Tinker Standard into action in public schools, which was meant to protect any and all forms of student expression, so long as it was not a disruption of the educational process. While the Tinker Standard did not specifically address student press, this right is implied under “first amendment.”
Now if only it were really that simple.
HAZELWOOD V. KUHLMEIER (1988)
The 1969 Tinker ruling will bring us into another important case for students and student journalists in America: Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier (1988). In the 1980’s at a St. Louis area public high school, Cathy Kuhlmeier, was a student at Hazelwood East. She, along with other student journalists, on her Spectrum newspaper staff, planned to publish two in depth news pieces on teen pregnancy. In the eleventh hour, Hazelwood East’s principal pulled the stories from the publication just before being sent to print, deeming them inappropriate for a high school audience. He also argued that the identities of pregnant students in the stories were not hidden well enough, and that the father of a divorced teen interviewed in the story should’ve been able to comment.
And I happen to agree with this statement. The stories were prime examples of sloppy, and, frankly, poor journalism. Identities of the students in question were not properly disguised, and the writing lacked subjectivity when certain people in the story appeared to be displayed in a negative light. But that is not what is up for discussion. What we’re talking about is censorship of student press in a public school: a blatant disregard for the 1969 Tinker ruling.
Because of the wrongful censorship, Cathy Kuhlmeier’s suing of Hazelwood East High School for infringing upon rights protected by Tinker v. Des Moines. After a flip-flop of rulings between the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri and the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of the school. The ruling stated that unless a publication identifies as an open or public forum (like Kickapoo High Quarterly), school-sponsored content can be censored or edited by administrators to prevent inappropriate material from being disseminated to the student body. This means that not only student publications, but also choir concerts, speech and debate pieces, theatre performances, or any other example of school-sponsored, student-produced content are subject to administrative censorship.
What about the Tinkers? What about Abe Fortas? I thought that I didn’t shed my first amendment rights at the schoolhouse gate, but it appears that I do shed one: my constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of the press. But it is neither my administrators’ nor my legislators’ duty or right to determine which parts of the first amendment do not apply to me.
Luckily, I’m not alone in these opinions. In an effort to protect students from administrative censorship under Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, the Student Press Law Center, a non-profit organization in Washington, D.C. that seeks to protect and strengthen the rights of student journalists, started a project now wildly popular among American student journalists: New Voices. The website for New Voices defines itself as “a student-powered grassroots movement to give young people the legally protected right to gather information and share ideas about issues of public concern.” New Voices works with advocates for journalism, law and civics in order to help student voices avoid stifling by school administration.
As of 2017, thirteen states have passed laws, codes or advisories into place to protect the rights of student journalists that the Hazelwood decision formerly denied them. Missouri is not one of these states.
The state of Kansas though, is one of the thirteen states to have one of these laws in place. The Kansas Student Publications Act allows administrators to review content prior to publication, but emphasizes that the students -not a district, board member or employee thereof- are responsible for determining their own content as well as any civil or criminal action that may come about as a result.
Julia Howell, Editor in Chief of Topeka High School World Newspaper and its website the Topeka High School Tower in Topeka, Kansas reflected on the benefits her publications have seen thanks to the Kansas Student Publications Act.
“We have been able to write stories that have caused a lot of backlash…but not all the backlash was bad,” Howell said. “All of these stories were things that needed to be talked about.”
She discussed some of the controversial topics that the law has allowed them to publish, and how how that has benefited her particularly diverse high school and its publications.
“Because of this act, we are able to create a discussion about things like drug abuse, controversial forms of protest, tense political events, etc. We have such a diverse school and community that limiting anything we say would be crazy and very uninformative,” Howell said.
NEW VOICES OF MISSOURI
The Student Press Law Center reports that about twenty states are currently running New Voices campaigns to help protect the rights of student journalists, and Missouri is one of them. The Show-Me state, home of the Hazelwood trial, has no legislation preventing administrative censorship for Missouri student journalists or their advisers.
In layman’s terms, the results of my extensive research, diligent interviews and comprehensive reporting can be completely scrapped simply because I was reporting a truth that a school suthority didn’t think should be publicized. In the real world, we’d call this fascism. But for whatever reason, it’s okay to suppress my rights to freedom of the press when I’m a high school student.
In January 2016, Representative Elijah Haahr (R) introduced the Walter Cronkite New Voices Act to the Missouri General Assembly. The bill would keep school administrators or other officials from censoring student media, so long as the media is not libelous or slanderous (false and defamatory statements), that do not invade privacy, violate any law or cause a disruption at school.
“Missouri is the home of one of the world’s most famous and iconic journalists in Walter Cronkite, but also the home of the Hazelwood decision that saw the rights of student journalists suppressed,” Haahr said. “My hope is that we can reestablish Missouri as a place that supports the freedom of the press, and protects the rights of high school and college student journalists.”
In 2016, the Walter Cronkite New Voices Act passed with flying colors in the Missouri House of Representatives, and received “favorable reception” in the Senate Education Committee. Unfortunately though, the bill never reached a Senate floor vote in 2016 and died on the calendar, as many bills do. This year, the bill came to this disappointing fate once again.
With Representative Haahr’s recent election as Missouri Speaker of the House, the bill has since been taken over by Representative Kevin Corlew.
WHY NEW VOICES SHOULD MATTER TO YOU
Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier incites the kind of censorship that is born of fear and a lack of trust in student journalists. Our administrators and our legislators alike must begin to see our journalism classrooms for what they are: newsrooms. Newsrooms full of journalists who simply want to report the truth and nothing but it, but often cannot because no law exists to protect them from wrongful censorship.
While I, a student journalist, promote such legislation for my own benefit, you, the readers, play a huge role in my argument as well. You deserve to see the cold, hard truth every time you open an issue of this magazine, or any other publication for that matter. You deserve to hear about controversial topics like sexual assault or the legalization of marijuana, because if one thing is for certain, it’s this: these things are happening. Some schools are crawling with mold. Some students are living on the streets. People are dying of heroin overdoses. Children are deliberately killing themselves, and people are walking into schools with firearms to kill children.
The idea that you, as a high school student, can’t handle controversy like this is not only absurd; it’s insulting. In preserving Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier and everything it means, you are being deprived of this truth and being viewed as a child that must be shielded from all bad things.
If you would like to learn more about the New Voices movement in Missouri and in the United States as a whole, be sure to visit NewVoicesUS.com or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also contact Rep. Corlew at Kevin.Corlew@house.mo.gov to voice your concern; my voice matters, and so does yours.
In the words of American hero Walter Cronkite, “that’s the way it is.”