Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier

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Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Argued October 13, 1987
Decided January 13, 1988
Full case name Hazelwood School District, et al. v. Kuhlmeier, et al.
Docket nos. 86-836
Citations 484 U.S. 260 (more)
108 S. Ct. 562; 98 L. Ed. 2d 592; 1985 U.S. LEXIS 310; 56 U.S.L.W. 4079; 14 Media L. Rep. 2081
Prior history On writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit
Argument Oral argument
The Court held that speech that can be reasonably viewed to have the school's imprimatur can be regulated by the school if the school has a legitimate pedagogical concern in regulating the speech.
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority White, joined by Rehnquist, Stevens, O'Connor, Scalia
Dissent Brennan, joined by Marshall, Blackmun
Kennedy took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amend. I

Hazelwood School District et al. v. Kuhlmeier et al., 484 U.S. 260 (1988) was a landmark decision by the Supreme Court of the United States which held that public school curricular student newspapers that have not been established as forums for student expression are subject to a lower level of First Amendment protection than independent student expression or newspapers established (by policy or practice) as forums for student expression.

The case was found in favor of Hazelwood School District, overruling a Court of Appeals reversal of a District Court ruling. There were five votes for Hazelwood, and three against. The majority of the justices believed that the censorship did not violate the student's First Amendment rights of free speech.


Facts of the case[edit]

The case concerned The Spectrum, a student newspaper which was published as part of a journalism class at Hazelwood East High School in the Hazelwood School District in St. Louis County, Missouri.[1] The Spectrum was written and edited as part of the Journalism II class at the school, published roughly every three weeks during the 1982-1983 school year.[2] About 4,500 copies of the paper were distributed to students and community members during the year. The cost of printing the paper as well as supplies, textbooks, and a portion of the academic advisor's salary were furnished by the district's Board of Education, supplemented by newspaper sales. For that school year, the board supplied $4,668 in printing costs, and the newspaper generated $1,166.84 in revenue.[1]

On May 10, 1983, Howard Emerson, the advisor to the journalism class, submitted page proofs of the May 13 issue of the newspaper to principal Robert Eugene Reynolds for approval, a practice which was customary at the time.[3] Reynolds objected to two of the stories scheduled to run. One was a story concerning teen pregnancy and containing interviews with three students who had been pregnant. The story contained false names to keep the girls' identities a secret, but Reynolds was concerned the pregnant students would still be identifiable from the text.[2] Reynolds was also concerned the references to sexual activity and birth control were inappropriate for younger students at school. The second story concerned divorce and featured an interview with a student whose parents were divorced, in which she complained her father "wasn't spending enough time with my mom, my sister, and I ... was always out of town on business or out late playing cards with the guys ... always argued about everything."[3] Reynolds, unaware that the name of the girl would also be changed,[2] was concerned that her family should have been given an opportunity to respond in the story, or to consent to its publication.[3]

Reynolds did not believe there was time to make the appropriate changes to the newspaper, and also that any delay in publication would mean the newspaper would not be published before the end of the school year.[2] After consulting with his supervisors, Reynolds opted to publish a four-page newspaper instead of a six-page one, omitting the pages containing the two stories.[3] In response, editor Cathy Kuhlmeier and reporters Leslie Smart and Leanne Tippett, filed suit in January 1984.[4]

Legal precedent[edit]

Until the 1960s administrative review of student publications was considered routine, both at high school and college newspapers, and students and faculty advisers had few alternatives. However, with the rise of the counterculture of the 1960s, student publications began to explore social issues with greater fervor, focusing on issues such as the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, sexual orientation and other issues considered sensitive.[5]

In 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld that freedom of expression of students is protected under the First Amendment in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (393 U.S. 503). Following that precedent, at least 125 other court cases in courts across the country were decided in favor of student expression and against administrative censorship. Whenever an instance of censorship involved action from a government employee such as a school principal or a college dean, the courts held that First Amendment constitutional safeguards applies.[5] Two additional cases in following years, Healy v. James (408 U.S. 169) in 1972 and Papish v. University of Missouri Curators (410 U.S. 670) in 1973, expanded the First Amendment rights of students on college campuses.[6]

By the 1980s, however, with the end of the student protest era, school administrators sought to reassert their authority. The first case in the new trend, Bethel School District v. Fraser (478 U.S. 675) in 1986, involved the discipline of a high school student for delivering a speech containing sexual innuendos, even though they were not obscene or disruptive in a legal sense. Overturning lower courts in the case, the Supreme Court clarified that the ruling of the Tinker case did not apply because the penalties imposed by the school were unrelated to a political viewpoint.[7]

Lower court decisions[edit]

The case was introduced in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri. The students sought a declaration that their First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment[4] rights had been violated, as well as injunctive relief and monetary damages. After a bench trial, the district court denied the injunction and monetary damages.[8] The court reached its decision in May 1985,[4] in which the district court held that school officials may restrain student speech in activities that "are an integral part of the school's educational function," as long as the decision has "a substantial and reasonable basis." The court held that no violation of First Amendment rights had occurred.[8]

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit reversed the decision in January 1986.[4] The court held that, at the outset, The Spectrum was not only a part of the school program, but also a public forum. The newspaper was "intended to be and operated as a conduit for student viewpoint."[8] As a public forum, the court ruled, The Spectrum could not be censored unless "necessary to avoid material and substantial interference with school work or discipline ... or the rights of others."[8]

The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari in January 1987,[4] and the case was argued on October 13, 1987. On January 13, 1988, the court handed down its decision.[2]

Supreme Court ruling[edit]

In a 5-3 ruling, the Supreme Court overturned the decision of the circuit court.[9] Its majority opinion set a precedent that school-sponsored activities, including student newspapers and drama productions are not normally protected from administrative censorship by the First Amendment.[10]

Majority opinion[edit]

Associate Justice Byron White wrote the court's majority opinion.

The majority of the justices held that the principal was entitled to censor the articles.[11] The majority opinion, penned by White, stated officials never intended the school paper to be a public forum as were underground publications in cases past. White went on to say educators do not infringe on First Amendment rights when exercising control over student speech in school-sponsored activities "so long as their actions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns."[12] The court established that the student publication could be regulated by school officials, and that they "reserved the forum for its intended purpose, as a supervised learning experience for journalism students."[10]

"A school need not tolerate student speech that is inconsistent with its basic educational mission, even though the government could not censor similar speech outside the school. ... (Judicial action to protect students' rights is justified) only when the decision to censor a school-sponsored publication, theatrical production or other vehicle of student expression has no valid educational purpose."[10]

The decision overrode the precedent set in the Tinker case. The 1969 decision had permitted censorship of student speech only if it violated the rights of other students or if it threatened to cause a campus disruption. The majority opinion held that this case was different.[12]

"The question whether the First Amendment requires a school to tolerate particular student speech—the question we addressed in Tinker—is different from the question whether the First Amendment requires a school affirmatively to promote particular student speech. The former question addresses educators' ability to silence students' personal expression that happens to occur on the school premises. The latter question concerns educators' authority over school sponsored publications, theatrical productions, and other expressive activities that students, parents, and members of the public might reasonably perceive to bear the imprimatur of the school."[10]

The ruling did not affect existing laws at the state and local level which protect student journalists, instead stating that, in absence of other rules barring administrative censorship, the First Amendment does not protect student publications.[10] By 2010 seven states—Arkansas, California, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Massachusetts and Oregon—had such laws on their books, and another 13 states were considering them.[13] In a footnote, the court also clarified that it did not see that the ruling necessarily applied at the collegiate level.[5]

Dissenting opinion[edit]

Associate Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. wrote the dissenting opinion.

Brennan wrote a dissenting opinion,[14] in which he was joined by Marshall and Blackmun, justices who were noted to often take liberal positions on First Amendment issues. In his opinion, Brennan expressed concern about the message the majority opinion would send students.[10]

"The young men and women of Hazelwood East expected a civics lesson, but not the one the Court teaches them today...Such unthinking contempt for individual rights is intolerable from any state official. It is particularly insidious from (a school principal) to whom the public entrusts the task of inculcating in its youth an appreciation for the cherished democratic liberties that our constitution guarantees."[10]


Under the First Amendment, school officials can censor non-forum student newspapers when they can justify their decision by stating an educational purpose. However, this decision does not allow school officials to censor articles wantonly or based on personal opinion, as shown in Dean v. Utica.

However, it is important to note that eight states have passed laws guaranteeing that all student newspapers have the right to publish freely.[1]. These states include Arkansas, California, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts and Oregon. The Hazelwood standard does not apply to student newspapers in these states; with limited exceptions, student editors control the content.

In 2005, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals decided Hosty v. Carter, which applied Hazelwood to college newspapers. That decision currently applies only to colleges in Wisconsin, Illinois, and Indiana. College publications in other states retain strong First Amendment protection. Similarly, in 2012, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, in the case of Ward v. Polite et al. held that college students have a reduced level of First Amendment protection, as per Hazelwood.

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b Bloomfield 2007, p. 66
  2. ^ a b c d e Russo 2009, p. 421
  3. ^ a b c d Bloomfield 2007, p. 67
  4. ^ a b c d e Utterback 2003, p. 251
  5. ^ a b c Belmas & Overbeck 2009, p. 587
  6. ^ Belmas & Overbeck 2009, p. 588
  7. ^ Belmas & Overbeck 2009, p. 589
  8. ^ a b c d Russo 2009, p. 422
  9. ^ Russo 2009, p. 425
  10. ^ a b c d e f g Belmas & Overbeck 2009, p. 591
  11. ^ Russo 2009, p. 423
  12. ^ a b Belmas & Overbeck 2009, p. 590
  13. ^ Belmas & Overbeck 2009, p. 592
  14. ^ Russo 2009, p. 424


External links[edit]

Research resources