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Justices OK Censorship by Schools : Say Educators Can Control Content of Pupil Publications

January 14, 1988|DAVID G. SAVAGE | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Public school officials have broad powers to censor school newspapers, the Supreme Court declared Wednesday in a decision that restricts the protection high school journalists may claim under the First Amendment.

On a 5-3 vote, the high court ruled that a principal in Hazelwood, Mo., did not violate students' rights to free speech by deleting from a student newspaper articles on teen-age pregnancy and the impact of divorce. The students had no legal right to publish the controversial articles, the court said, because the paper was owned and controlled by the school.

"We hold that educators do not offend the First Amendment by exercising editorial control over the style and content of student speech in school-sponsored expressive activities so long as their actions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns," Justice Byron R. White wrote for the court.

sh 'Unsuitable' Material

In deleting two pages from the Hazelwood East High School Spectrum in 1983, Principal Robert Reynolds said he believed that the material was "inappropriate and unsuitable" reading for teen-agers.

The article on pregnancy consisted of personal accounts by three pregnant Hazelwood East students, whose real names were not used. The girls' reactions to their pregnancies, the reactions of their parents, their plans for the future and details of their sex lives were discussed. The story on divorce quoted from interviews with students.

Journalism students Cathy Kuhlmeier, Lee Ann Tippett-West and Leslie Smart initiated the case by suing Reynolds and other school officials on grounds that their freedom of speech had been violated.

sh Issue of 'Public Forum'

A federal trial judge ruled against the students, but the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the suit. It ruled that the Spectrum is a "public forum" because it was intended to be and was operated as a conduit for student viewpoints.

But the Supreme Court ruled that the Spectrum is not, and never was, a public forum.

"School officials did not evince . . . any intent to open the pages of Spectrum to indiscriminate use by its student reporters and editors, or by the student body generally," White said.

"Instead, they reserved the forum for its intended purpose, as a supervised learning experience for journalism students. Accordingly, school officials were entitled to regulate the contents of Spectrum in any reasonable manner," he said.

It was the third time in three years that the high court has ruled that students do not have the same constitutional rights as adults.

In 1985, the court ruled that students are not protected from "unreasonable searches" as adult citizens are under the Fourth Amendment. Instead, their lockers and purses may be searched by a school official who suspects that they contain drugs, the justices said. The next year, the court said that a student could be suspended for making a speech during a school assembly that school officials considered "offensive."

The rulings underscore a change in direction from the more liberal Warren Court, which declared in a 1969 decision on students' rights to wear protest armbands that young people "do not shed their constitutional rights . . . at the schoolhouse gate."

The case decided Wednesday differs, White said, because it concerns a "school-sponsored" publication overseen by a journalism instructor. "Accordingly, school officials were entitled to regulate the contents of the Spectrum in any reasonable manner," White said.

sh Educational Mission Cited

"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," White said, declaring that judicial intervention to protect students' free-speech rights is warranted "only when the decision to censor a school-sponsored publication, theatrical production or other vehicle of student expression has no valid educational purpose."

He said that the court's opinion does not apply to a newspaper sponsored by a college or university or an "underground" newspaper that is printed off campus.

In dissent, Justice William J. Brennan Jr., the court's liberal leader, blasted his colleagues for endorsing "official censorship" by government officials.

"The mere fact of school sponsorship does not . . . license thought control in the high school," Brennan wrote. "The young men and women of Hazelwood East expected a civics lesson (in their journalism course), but not the one the court teaches them today." He was joined by Justices Thurgood Marshall and Harry A. Blackmun.

"Such unthinking contempt for individual rights is intolerable from any state official," Brennan said of the principal's action. "It is particularly insidious from one to whom the public entrusts the task of inculcating in its youth an appreciation for the cherished democratic liberties that our Constitution guarantees."

sh Key Vote by Stevens

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