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Hazelwood: Time to assess its impact
on educational process, civic engagement


hazelwoodcolorby Randy Swikle
Former JEA Illinois state director

On the 25th anniversary (Jan. 13) of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier decision, the high school student press in America is at risk.

Instead of engaging students in the functions of American journalism, some school authorities want to relegate student news media to mere academic practice, to public relations facades for shaping school images and to vehicles for disseminating primarily the perspectives sanctioned by school administrators.

Such a controlling approach is contrary to the best interests of scholastic journalism, student welfare, community awareness, school accountability and core principles of American democracy. It leads to arbitrary censorship and even intimidation.

Too often autocratic control is prioritized over the school mission of empowering students and giving them well-defined autonomy within the parameters of law, order and journalistic ethics. Too often teaching obedience is prioritized over teaching responsibility, and clout rather than collaboration is used to resolve contention.

A dangerous effect of autocratic intervention is self-censorship, which occurs when student journalists—anticipating suppression of their controversial or discomforting perspectives—decide not to submit their candid views for publication. Valuable perspectives never reach the media’s marketplace of ideas. Hence, robust dialogue is averted in favor of appeasing authorities. Students learn not to make waves; civic engagement is imperiled; decision-making doesn’t benefit from more diverse perspectives; and well-meaning students are disrespected.

The Hazelwood decision has contributed to the erosion of scholastic journalism and the student press. In the classroom, students learn about the functions, skills and standards of the American journalism, but Hazelwood denies students a designated public forum for them to apply those dynamics. Rather than serve the school community in a way that emulates the professional press, the nonpublic forum status of student news media minimizes First Amendment protections for students and maximizes the power of school officials to control the content of student news media.

Hazelwood set the minimum standards for protecting student press rights in public school curricular news media that have not been established as forums for student expression. The Court’s decision (which is an option for oversight, not a mandated law) has been used as a tool for arbitrarily censoring the student press when its content is disagreeable to school administrators—educators who can be authoritative but should not be authoritarian.

The alternative to Hazelwood is the Court’s 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines Board of Education decision, which recognizes student news media as designated public forums, thereby giving student journalists significantly more First Amendment protection.

Tinker states that neither students nor teachers “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

Already, seven states have passed legislation that rejects the Hazelwood option and recognizes student news media as designated public forums. They are Arkansas, California, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Massachusetts and Oregon. Those states value student voices that need to be heard just as much as the perspectives of other partners in community education.

The anniversary of Hazelwood is a perfect time for assessment—for evaluating the impact of that decision to identify precisely how it has affected scholastic journalism, civic learning, school culture, student empowerment, transparency, accountability, partnership and tenets of exemplary school missions. Do the benefits of Hazelwood outweigh its deficiencies? Or does the harm of Hazelwood require an alternative strategy for nurturing responsible student news media?

Representative stakeholders—including students, teachers, parents, administrators, board members, civic learning activists, professional journalists, college educators, ethicists and others—need to come together in an effort to appreciate different perspectives, align attitudes, justify actions and strive for common ground.

Students or any other stakeholders can initiate collaborations. Community news media can host collaborations. The McCormick Foundation’s Protocol for Free & Responsible Student News Media can provide structure for collaborations:

The impact of Hazelwood reaches far beyond the student press and affects the entire culture of a school. It’s time to talk about Hazelwood and about alternatives. It’s time to initiate a collaboration of scholastic journalism stakeholders.


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