First Amendment Essay

The 1988 Supreme Court Case Hazelwood School District vs. Kuhlmeier examined a Missouri high school administrations’ decision to censor its student newspaper. Particularly, the school board chose to censor student-written pieces about teen pregnancy and the impact of divorce on teens. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled that school officials can only censor student papers if they provide a “reasonable educational justification” or prove that such censoring is “reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.”

A few decades later, student works are still being censored. The topics of conflict look different now, however. Subjects once frowned upon are now a part of everyday life for today’s youth. Divorce and teen pregnancy have been replaced with 21st century issues like “dabbing” and abortion. Today, very few bat an eyelash if a student mentions his or her parent’s divorce. But a single hint at a teen’s sexual activity in public is simply indecorous.

So why and how do high schools continue to violate the precedent established in Hazelwood School District vs. Kuhlmeier? As a contributor for Simpson Street Free Press and the Managing Editor for my high school publication, La Follette The Lance, I strongly believe that student journalists are entitled to the rights guaranteed them by the First Amendment—no matter a school administration’s agenda.

Simply put, I believe that if a student reporter feels a topic is important enough to publish, it should not be censored. When school administrations censor student publications, they discourage students from writing, stepping outside of their comfort zones, and exposing hard-hitting subjects that need to be addressed. It is vital that student journalists understand, defend, and have access to their First Amendment rights while exploring the world of investigative journalism.

Most young people in journalism programs are very familiar with the First Amendment and how it guarantees individuals freedom of expression. However, it’s also important for all reporters to recognize that the government cannot muzzle the press.

That being said, while one does have the right to say as he or she pleases, there are codes of practice to follow when reporting. Upon entering the field, every journalist is taught the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, for example. This code states that every reporter is responsible for seeking truth and reporting it, being accountable, minimizing harm, and acting independently.

In addition to the Code of Ethics, there also are rights and responsibilities student journalists have. Students must hold themselves to high standards when writing for publications: they must know when to break certain stories, how to approach edgy or sensitive topics, where to gather correct information from credible sources, and how to proofread with a discerning eye.

Failure to adhere to the Code of Ethics can result in censorship or worse. Even though good journalism often requires ‘getting down and dirty’ and unveiling potentially taboo topics, some school administrations still express a need to censor. This then begs the question: if school administrations are going to practice censorship, what is the line? In what instances should censorship be deemed appropriate and in what scenarios should it not?

Often, student-run, school-sponsored publications have to worry about the topics they publish. This happens because private schools have a right to censor, as their publications are school-funded. Other schools—public ones in particular—still maintain the right to censor stories, though they have less control.

One such example is when SaraRose Martin, a Fauquier High School senior in Virginia, wrote an article about the drug craze called “dabbing” in the spring of last year. Specifically, Martin wrote about the process of using marijuana products to achieve an extreme level of high. Principal Clarence Burton III of Fauquier High School censored Martin’s piece from the school’s hard copy publication. Students from the paper then proceeded to run the article online.

In this piece, Martin quotes several users of the drug under false names to maintain their anonymity. While the quotes come from seemingly credible sources, then, they also seem to “sugar-coat” the substance or praise it for being safer to consume than marijuana is.

“It's quicker and an easier method, and can be safer [than weed] because you don't have any carcinogens going into your lungs; it's only pure THC,” ‘Tim O’Leary’ stated in Martin’s piece.

Quotes like these, says Principal Burton III, transform the piece from an informational one to one that encourages its readers to try the drug. Further, he worries that publishing the article would expose his students “to a new and dangerous drug without adult guidance.”

Take an informational piece about painting, for example, and it probably wouldn’t pose problems. However, if the student author states that painters can get high off of the chemicals found in the paint, it might result in young people who read the publication attempting to get high off of their families’ paint supplies. Though the intention of the piece was to inform a student population about painting, the student author has also informed hundreds of students of a drug they potentially hadn’t known about before.

The same goes with Martin’s article. Though her intention was to inform the student body about a drug they may or may not have been using, the entire student community now has access to the information.

Though Principal Burton III’s concerns are legitimate, it is still unfortunate that Martin’s work was censored. Writing is an effective creative outlet for almost anybody, especially in today’s technological age. Most people in the 21st century are constantly connected to their mobile devices; because of this, anyone can write and publish a response to any incident that happens at any time on a wide variety of multi-media platforms. Student journalists should be able to produce something of their own without fear of censorship or discrimination—the same rights that those who publish online enjoy.

Despite the rights guaranteed American citizens in the First Amendment, censorship proves that someone or some institution will always have control over what print journalists write. I believe that journalists should not have to fear their school administrations, the government, or anybody else.

Censorship shows students that their stories and opinions are not valued. It is wrong to silence a young journalist’s talents because his or her viewpoint might be different from the perspective of someone from a different generation, class, or race. Often times, those from older generations find works of today’s youth scandalous. Society must remember that students are usually writing from their everyday experiences, however.

Rather than highlight and censor seemingly controversial student work, journalism and those who have a say over publications should challenge writers to investigate topics that make people think, to produce articles that teach readers something they may not have known before, to entertain, intrigue, and get a point across.

The First Amendment protects the freedom of the press and the freedom of speech, including that which is said and written by student journalists. Ethics are certainly important, but they do not outweigh the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. At its best, censorship protects certain audiences. But at its worst, it prevents young reporters from investigating important topics and sharing their truths. It’s time that society reflects on the negative impacts of censorship and thinks critically about the messages we want to impart to curious, burgeoning writers.

Wonderful work, Enjoyiana! I enjoyed reading this piece and am proud of all the hard work you put into it. – MckenaMadison, WI (2016-05-07 12:30)