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Jan. 13 decision paralyzes student mood about journalism

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by Brenda Gorsuch
Hazelwood stories: When I became the newspaper adviser at West Henderson High School in 1983, I loved telling my students about the Supreme Court’s Tinker v. Des Moines Community School District decision from 1969.hazelwoodcolor

I enjoyed listening to them discuss the rights the First Amendment and the Court had guaranteed them. My students felt empowered. It was inspiring to watch the pride and spirit of responsibility they brought to their work on the Wingspan. At one point, an assistant superintendent in our school district tried to prevent my students from publishing an in-depth story on sex education, but our principal came to our defense. He reminded his boss of the Tinker decision and told her that his students understood their rights and responsibilities and that he supported their efforts.

Then came Jan. 13, 1988. We were shocked by the court’s decision in the Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier case. The mood in my classroom that day was so somber that an outsider would have thought someone had died. My students felt paralyzed. How could adults as knowledgeable and powerful as the Supreme Court justices think they were not entitled to their rights as citizens?

Over the weeks and months that followed, my young journalists became tentative and, at times, timid in pursuing stories that needed to be told. It was disheartening to watch their fearful second-guessing and self-censorship.

In the years since the Hazelwood decision, I have become even more convinced that the Supreme Court got it wrong. If we expect excellence and give students the opportunity to be responsible, they will rise to our expectations. I believe students should be allowed freedom of expression in their publications.

I can understand the Supreme Court’s concerns expressed in the Hazelwood decision, but I believe the justices expected too little of today’s youth. The publications at West Henderson have never been submitted for prior review by an administrator.

As their adviser, I continue to encourage my students to tackle important issues and to report them in a fair, accurate and balanced way. In spite of Hazelwood, my students continue to inspire me.

One Comment

  1. I was one of the advisers in Kansas who helped pass a state law to counter the effects of Hazelwood. Later, I became a consultant to Indonesian newspapers. While there, the Indonesian editors and publishers discovered that Kansas High School students had more freedom to express themselves than did Indonesian professionals. One 30-year editor cried when he expressed his frustration. They sent me to at least 15 cities, and I talked with editors of over 50 newspapers during the next two years. In each city, I talked about press freedom. Most of the editors published a story in their papers about what I said. Two years after that, students in Jakarta rioted in the streets to overthrow the dictatorship of their president, Suharto. When he was replaced, the next two presidents allowed press freedom, which had been in their constitution but never supported, to exist. Today, though not as free as ours because of a corrupt court system, their media can now criticize their government, and they have a functioning democracy in the fourth largets country in the world. I always liked to believe that our little anti-Hazelwood law in Kansas helped.

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