Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier

Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier (1988) is the third of a trilogy of cases involving the free speech rights of students, along with Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969) and Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser (1986). The legal issue in Hazelwood was whether a principal’s exercise of editorial control over the contents of a high school newspaper that was produced as part of a school’s curriculum violated the First Amendment rights of students. The Supreme Court said that school officials could exercise such control if their actions were motivated by reasonable pedagogical concerns.

Facts of the Case

In Hazelwood, the students who were enrolled in a journalism class at Hazelwood East High School were required to write and edit a newspaper, The Spectrum, as part of the curriculum. Pursuant to school policy, the journalism teacher submitted page proofs to the principal for approval prior to publication. The principal objected to some of the material included in two of the articles, one about teenage pregnancy and one about divorce. Believing there was insufficient time for students to make the necessary editorial changes prior to the publication deadline, the principal directed the journalism teacher to delete the pages containing the questionable material.

The journalism students filed suit, alleging that the principal’s actions violated their First Amendment rights. After a federal trial court in Missouri refused to enjoin school officials from prohibiting the publication of the articles, the Eighth Circuit reversed in favor of the students. On further review, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the actions of school officials.

The Court’s Ruling

At the heart of its rationale in its landmark opinion in Hazelwood, the Supreme Court ruled 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” (Hazelwood, p. 273). Relying on its earlier judgment in Tinker, the Court reasoned that although “students do not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gates” (Hazelwood, p. 267, citing Tinker at p. 506), educators are not required to tolerate student speech that is contrary to a school’s educational goals and mission.

The Court also solidified the classification of school-sponsored newspapers as limited open forums, as opposed to open or public open forums, meaning that school officials could exercise greater control over their content. Hazelwood thus illustrates the Court’s commitment to granting educators broad discretion to regulate student expression in school-sponsored activities that are inconsistent with a school’s educational objectives. Moreover, Hazelwood supports historical trends in which courts have given immense deference to the discretion of school officials who are presumed experts in educational matters.

Hazelwood is best known for clarifying the standard that school personnel are required to meet before limiting students’ freedom of expression in secondary schools. Prior to Hazelwood, courts broadly interpreted the First Amendment rights of high school students in relation to freedom of expression. During the pre- Hazelwood era, lower courts utilized Tinker as a legal framework in determining the extent of students’ First Amendment rights in public schools. Applying Tinker, these courts generally recognized school-sponsored newspapers as public forums that were subject to First Amendment protection. Put another way, prior to Hazelwood, school officials were permitted to restrict student expression only in circumstances in which they were able to prove that a substantial disruption of school activities was imminent unless they limited student expression. In the years prior to Hazelwood, many educators adamantly opposed the prevailing judicial interpretation that school-sponsored newspapers should have been classified as public forums. These officials contended that school-sponsored newspapers did not qualify as forums for public expression because they were part of educational curricula that should have been subject to their control.

Even as Hazelwood has served as a guiding principle for the application of First Amendment freedomof- expression rights in America’s public schools, it has yielded some unexpected outcomes. Insofar as Hazelwood delineated only the limits of student First Amendment protections, a variety of states took the opportunity to develop laws granting high school students broader First Amendment protection following Hazelwood. Colorado and Massachusetts, for example, enacted laws explicitly identifying what categories of student expression school officials were free to restrict.

Further, California law permits educators to restrict student expression only if they can demonstrate that such speech is obscene, libelous, or will substantially disrupt the educational environment. Accordingly, while Hazelwood allows educators to limit freedom of expression for reasonable educational purposes, state laws designed to increase students’ First Amendment rights allow restrictions only if the speech falls into one of the proscribed categories.

As the educational milieu continues to address a morass of legal issues regarding the First Amendment rights of students, Hazelwood’s utility will become more apparent. The emergence of state laws granting students greater First Amendment protection in lieu of Hazelwood and emerging controversies indicate that, as it is doing in Frederick v. Morse (2006a, 2000b), the Supreme Court will revisit the issue of student freedom of expression to provide greater clarity regarding the constitutional framework for balancing student free speech rights and the educational goals of schools.

Laura R. McNeal

See also Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser; First Amendment: Speech in Schools; Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District

Further Readings

  • Belt, S. W. (1988). Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier. Northern Kentucky Law Review, 16, 191–204. 
  • Bryks, H. (1989). A lesson in school censorship: Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier. Brooklyn Law Review, 55, 291–325. 
  • Lomkey, C. S. (2000). Analysis of high school newspaper editorials before and after Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier: A content analysis. Journal of Law & Education, 29, 433–461. 

Legal Citations

  • Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser, 478 U.S. 675 (1986). 
  • Frederick v. Morse, 439 F.3d 1114 (9th Cir. 2006a), cert. granted, 127 S. Ct. 722 (2006b). 
  • Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U.S. 260 (1988). 
  • Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 U.S. 503 (1969).