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 Dean v. Utica Community Schools, 2004

Quick Tip 25: Student First Amendment Rights

by Jan Ewell
The principal of Utica High School told the student newspaper, the Arrow, to cut an article by student journalist Katy Dean, as well as an accompanying editorial and an editorial cartoon. The students had written about a couple, Rey and Joanne Frances, who were suing the school district. They claimed idling diesel buses in the school garage next to their home had caused the husband’s cancer.

Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier allows administrators to censor for “legitimate pedagogical concerns.” The principal said that the articles were based on “unreliable” sources and that the article was “highly inaccurate.” Perhaps these reasons were given as his legitimate pedagogical concerns.

The students published a black box with the word “Censored” across it in white lettering, and an editorial on censorship. A local newspaper later published Dean’s censored article.

The case was decided in the United States District Court in Katy Dean’s favor because of the Arrow’s status as a limited public forum, and on the quality of the journalism.

Establishing a Public Forum in Practice and Policy

The judge ruled that the student paper was a public forum, even though it was produced by a class for school credit. He used the nine criteria established in Draudt v. Wooster.[link] Because it was a public forum and therefore under Tinker v. Des Moines not under Hazelwood, the principal had violated the students’ rights.   

To determine if the paper was a public forum, the judge looked at the practice of the publication.  In its 25 year history, the officials at the school had never intervened in the editorial process of the publication. The students had no practice of submitting content to school officials for prior review, nor did the faculty adviser regulate the topics the newspaper covered. In practice the paper was a public forum.

School policy also supported the “Arrow’s” status as a public forum. The curriculum guide and the course descriptions provided evidence that it should enjoy the protections of Tinker.

Clarifying When Censorship is Permissible Under Hazelwood

Though the judge ruled the paper was under the Tinker standard, he also closely examined the censored article by Katy Dean using the Hazelwood standards of fairness, research and writing.  He found that, even under Hazelwood, “the suppression of the article was unconstitutional.” The school officials had claimed the work was “inaccurate” because they disagreed with the opinions of people quoted in the story. What the district called “inaccurate” was simply an attempt to disguise “what is, in substance, a difference of opinion with its content,” the judge wrote.  Even under the Hazelwood standard, the officials had violated the students’ rights.

Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.” –– Harry S. Truman

In his decision, the judge quoted President Harry S. Truman: “Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.”

He also quoted President Dwight D. Eisenhower: “Don’t join the book burners. Don’t think you are going to conceal thoughts by concealing evidence that they ever existed.”

Dean v. Utica shows two avenues for student journalists to free themselves from Hazelwood. The first is to be a public forum in either “policy or practice.” The second is to produce high quality journalism.

Resources:

Dean v. Utica Community Schools

Why Dean v. Utica is important

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