The Supreme Court Needs to Revisit Hazelwood V. Kulhmier

In 1988, the Supreme Court issued its only ruling on student journalism to date. The case was about a school-funded high school newspaper that had printed a story on teen pregnancy in a school-funded newspaper. The school’s principal deleted the pages without the newspaper’s consent, claiming it was his right to do so. The students sued in response, arguing that their first amendment rights had been violated. They also argued that their newspaper was a “public forum,” which is protected under the first amendment. 

The Supreme Court sided with the school administration, rejecting the notion that a newspaper was a form of a public forum; furthermore, since the school funded the paper, they were allowed to dictate which stories could be published. This has far-reaching implications that, as a student journalist, deeply, deeply worry me. This out-of-date case has current-day implications for the essential exercise of free speech in a significant portion of campus publications that receive school funding, including The Phoenix. We need a more modern, clearer ruling on the first amendment rights of student journalists. 

The first big problem with this case is that many federal judges have extended the Hazelwood ruling to colleges whilst never having actually addressed whether or not they meant for their decision to apply to post-secondary institutions. Justice White, the author of the majority opinion of Hosty v. Carter, wrote, “[The court] need not now decide whether the same degree of deference is appropriate with respect to school-sponsored expressive activities at the college and university level.” Despite there being no clear ruling concerning publications on the college level, lower courts still use the Hazelwood ruling to guide decisions on college journalism cases. 

This has massive consequences on student journalism, and thus the court should specifically consider what rights college-level student journalists have. College students are significantly more mature, independent, and autonomous than high school students, in addition to usually being legal adults; their rights should be considered separately from those of high school students. There should be a separate ruling that doesn’t lump college and high school newspapers together. Not to mention the court ruled that censorship, in this case, was permissible because a school paper was for curriculum purposes and not part of an open forum. Obviously, college papers exist outside of the classroom and its writers participate on a more volunteer-oriented basis. Therefore, it is ludicrous to consider them the same as high school journalism classes. 

Think about the bigger legal implications: by not revisiting this case, the Supreme Court has not afforded college newspapers the right to cover trials (Nebraska Press Association v. Stuart), or protect sources (Branzburg v. Hayes). Without these rights, certain anonymous sources might be hesitant to provide information to newspapers because they are worried about their anonymity, and newspapers may be prevented from covering important legal proceedings. This puts a significant risk on many college newspapers’ ability to cover important and controversial community issues.

College newspapers are often one of the few sources keeping universities and colleges accountable to the public. In my time at Swarthmore, The Phoenix has covered several controversial issues on campus, including the fraternity leaks, the Chamberlain Project, and allegations of player abuse and toxic behavior against the former women’s basketball Head Coach. Imagine the consequences there would have been if Swarthmore was able to stop a story from being published because it provides funding. This is the case for many college papers that cover deeply critical and groundbreaking issues for their communities, and many receive some level of funding from either student activities fees, campus budgets, or other sources. Financially independent journalism is incredibly hard to foster and sustain. Students shouldn’t have to give up their rights for failing to achieve that. 

The law around freedom of the press as it pertains to collegiate journalism remains unclear. Considering that lower courts often apply the precedent of Hazelwood, despite its lack of explicit ruling, this issue demands that the Supreme Court specify exactly what rights college newspapers are entitled to. Let’s make it clear and give college journalists the first amendment rights they deserve. 

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