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Lessons on ‘things we did not want them to know’ result in successful action against censors


by Gloria Olman
Hazelwood stories: Twenty-five years before the Hazelwood Supreme Court decision, I was defending students’ right to publish on topics from a teacher strike to locker searches and letters to the editor.

25 years of Hazelwood art

“I will defend your right to publish all the way to the Supreme Court, but it will be on a serious matter, not a gossip column, and you will have covered all sides of the issues,” I repeated each school year.

After four years, I moved out of state. Returning, I tried to substitute teach in that district but was not hired. “You were teaching students things we didn’t want them to know…  …yes, the First Amendment.” That was still prior to the 1969 Tinker and Zucker decisions.

By 1977, I was advising in a different district and always gave the principal a heads up on issues. While he did not always agree with the paper’s content, he expressed his opinion to the students and never interfered with publication. The Hazelwood decision did not change that relationship. However, it did reinforce the importance of educating students on laws, ethics, rights and responsibilities. They needed to understand, not only to be responsible journalists, but also to defend their rights to sometimes hostile faculty members and others.

When a new principal dismissed my protest that he had no legal grounds to remove a story and I refused to do it, he “directed” me to pull it. Students took over, using lessons from our September discussions. As they prepared to file their case, my life became increasingly difficult. Some faculty members and coaches refused to allow the paper sold in their classrooms or to be interviewed. They also would not talk to me. District administrators regularly met with me, trying to limit the paper’s content and to remove me as adviser. It was a miserable time.

Hazelwood cast a pall on scholastic journalism. Advisers may fear loss of tenure and/or job, and allow administration to overrule them on issues. Others may lack journalism background to build and defend programs. Complicating this, administrators often have been given false or misleading information related to student media. This impacts the struggle to establish open forum status as district policy.

Another significant Hazelwood effect is the increase in self-censorship, the “we can’t print that” often heard at workshops and continuing on to college journalism classes.

Yes, Hazelwood did affect my teaching. The principal’s directive led to the 2004 Dean v Utica Community Schools U.S. Federal District Court decision. That case has been called the most important legal victory for student media since Hazelwood, and a turning point in the struggle against increasing censorship. It was a serendipitous end to my career.

Gloria Olman, MJE, is the 1992 Dow Jones News Fund Journalism Teacher of the Year, and taught at Utica High in Michigan.

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