Extra Censory

The journalism curriculum at Tolleson Union High School includes a text titled Press Time that extols students' First Amendment rights, declaring, "This famous amendment reads in part, 'Congress shall make no law . . . abridging freedom of speech, or of the press . . . '"

But when student reporters try to exercise their First Amendment rights, they learn something else entirely.

In February 1996, Michelle Beaver, opinion editor of the Tolleson High newspaper, The Wolver, prepared a two-page spread of columns and letters about a controversial new math program.

Beaver had interviewed math teachers who didn't care for the curriculum, and felt that since the taxpayers were paying for the math program, they should know about it.

But the day before the paper was to be printed, Beaver's newspaper adviser, Daryl James, got a note from Tolleson Union's principal, Joe Rega.

Beaver recalls, "Mr. James had got a note, a Post-it, that said something along the lines of, 'Under no circumstances will these pages print. I repeat, do not print these pages.' That was pretty extreme. It was an odd feeling."

The next day The Wolver was printed without the two-page spread.
Beaver's work had been censored.
She is not alone.

Thanks to a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision, school administrators in Arizona and most other states have the power to preview and censor student publications.

It is not uncommon for Arizona's budding journalists to see their work quashed by administrators who say some material would be detrimental to students.

But some of it also could be detrimental to the image of the school, and the administration:

* At Westview High in 1995, a story about a survey of students' sexual experiences was suppressed. Another time, a story about an employee pay dispute was altered.

* At Greenway High in 1992, stories about drug dealing on campus and the accidental death of a student near the school were suppressed by the principal.

* In 1991 at Amphitheater High in Tucson, the principal tried to cancel the newspaper staff's trip to a convention because she was angry over a photo and news story in the student paper.

Many educators believe prior review is necessary to protect district taxpayers.

"You can have people maligned, impugned or slandered," says Jack Peterson, director of the Arizona School Boards Association. If someone is libeled, he says, the district could be held liable.

But Daryl James, adviser to The Wolver, believes the Supreme Court ruling has put too much power in the hands of school administrators.

"Principals have so much power that it's real easy to abuse it," says James. "They've gone too far with their power and they start censoring stories that really aren't to protect the children but to protect the image of the school."

Student reporters at a suburban St. Louis high school wrote stories dealing with teenage pregnancy and the effects of divorce on children. Those stories contained talk from some students about their sexual experiences and use of birth control. The principal censored those pages.

The case now known as the Hazlewood School District v. Kuhlmeier upheld the principal's decision.

The U.S. Supreme Court felt that the material was inappropriate in a school-sponsored publication distributed to 14-year-old freshmen.

This decision affected other student media, including yearbooks, literary magazines and radio and TV programs. The court's ruling went against the standard it set in a 1969 case, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, where students were suspended from school for wearing black arm bands in protest of the Vietnam War.

In that case, the high court ruled that school officials could only limit student free expression if they could prove it would disrupt school activities or invade the rights of others.

Hazlewood was treated differently. The court classified the student newspaper as a "non-forum school-sponsored activity," because the newspaper never labeled the paper as a forum in any of its written policies. The court said a public forum is created when "by policy or practice" school officials open up a publication to the unrestricted use of students.

In Hazlewood, the court ruled that if a school administrator can present a reasonable educational justification for censorship, it will be allowed. It ruled that principals may essentially act as publishers.

Hazlewood is the law in 44 states. Only Arkansas, California, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas and Massachusetts have adopted laws guaranteeing students the right to free expression. Illinois has a similar bill awaiting the governor's signature, according to Mark Goodman, director of Student Press Law Center in Washington, D.C., an organization that assists student journalists across the country.

"Some 28 states have considered this kind of legislation," says Goodman, whose organization has had almost 6,000 requests for legal assistance between 1992-95.