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Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier

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Title: Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier  
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Subject: First Amendment to the United States Constitution, Hosty v. Carter, Hazelwood East High School, School speech (First Amendment), Freedom of the press in the United States
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Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier

Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier
Argued October 13, 1987
Decided January 13, 1988
Full case name Hazelwood School District, et al. v. Kuhlmeier, et al.
Docket nos. 86-836
Citations 484 U.S. 260 (more)
108 S. Ct. 562; 98 L. Ed. 2d 592; 1985 U.S. LEXIS 310; 56 U.S.L.W. 4079; 14 Media L. Rep. 2081
Prior history On writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit
Argument Oral argument
The Court held that speech that can be reasonably viewed to have the school's imprimatur can be regulated by the school if the school has a legitimate pedagogical concern in regulating the speech.
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority White, joined by Rehnquist, Stevens, O'Connor, Scalia
Dissent Brennan, joined by Marshall, Blackmun
Kennedy took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amend. I

Hazelwood School District et al. v. Kuhlmeier et al., 484 U.S. 260 (1988) was a landmark decision by the Supreme Court of the United States that held that public school curricular student newspapers that have not been established as forums for student expression are subject to a lower level of First Amendment protection than independent student expression or newspapers established (by policy or practice) as forums for student expression.

The case concerned the censorship of two articles in The Spectrum, the student newspaper of Hazelwood East High School in St. Louis County, Missouri, in 1983. When the school principal removed an article concerning divorce and another concerning teen pregnancy, the student journalists sued, claiming their First Amendment rights were violated. A lower court sided with the school before it was overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.

In a 5-3 decision rendered in 1988, the Supreme Court overturned the circuit court decision with a majority opinion that school administrators could exercise prior restraint of school-sponsored expression, such as newspapers and assembly speeches, if the censorship is "reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns". In this, school-sponsored newspapers are considered limited public forums of expression.

The case and the earlier Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District are considered landmarks for defining student right to expression in public schools. While subsequent courts have varied significantly on when the Hazelwood decision applies, the case remains a strong precedent in how student speech is regulated.


  • Background 1
    • Facts of the case 1.1
    • Legal precedent 1.2
    • Lower court decisions 1.3
  • Supreme Court ruling 2
    • Majority opinion 2.1
    • Dissenting opinion 2.2
  • Legacy 3
    • Subsequent jurisprudence 3.1
  • See also 4
  • References 5
    • Citations 5.1
    • Sources 5.2
  • External links 6


Facts of the case

The case concerned The Spectrum, a student newspaper which was published as part of a journalism class at Hazelwood East High School in the Hazelwood School District in St. Louis County, Missouri.[1][2] The Spectrum was written and edited as part of the Journalism II class at the school, published roughly every three weeks during the 1982-1983 school year.[3][4] About 4,500 copies of the paper were distributed to students and community members during the year. The cost of printing the paper as well as supplies, textbooks, and a portion of the academic advisor's salary were furnished by the district's Board of Education, supplemented by newspaper sales. For that school year, the board supplied $4,668 in printing costs, and the newspaper generated $1,166.84 in revenue.[1][4]

On May 10, 1983, Howard Emerson, the adviser to the journalism class, submitted page proofs of the May 13 issue of the newspaper to principal Robert Eugene Reynolds for approval, a practice which was customary at the time.[5][6] Reynolds objected to two of the stories scheduled to run. One was a story concerning teen pregnancy and containing interviews with three students who had been pregnant. The story contained false names to keep the girls' identities a secret, but Reynolds was concerned the pregnant students would still be identifiable from the text.[3] Reynolds was also concerned the references to sexual activity and birth control were inappropriate for younger students at school. The second story concerned divorce and featured an interview with a student whose parents were divorced, in which she complained her father "wasn't spending enough time with my mom, my sister, and I ... was always out of town on business or out late playing cards with the guys ... always argued about everything."[5] Reynolds, unaware that the name of the girl would also be changed,[3] was concerned that her family should have been given an opportunity to respond in the story, or to consent to its publication.[5]

Reynolds did not believe there was time to make the appropriate changes to the newspaper, and also that any delay in publication would mean the newspaper would not be published before the end of the school year.[3] After consulting with his supervisors, Reynolds opted to publish a four-page newspaper instead of a six-page one, omitting the pages containing the two stories.[5] The cutting of the two pages removed a total of seven articles from the paper.[7] Reynolds did not tell the students about the decision, and they did not find out about it until the paper was delivered to the school.[8]

In response, editor Cathy Kuhlmeier and reporters Leslie Smart and Leanne Tippett filed suit in January 1984,[7] with the aid of the American Civil Liberties Union. Kuhlmeier later said the idea for the pieces came from old issues of The Spectrum and she had been looking to update them.[8]

Legal precedent

Until the 1960s administrative review of student publications was considered routine, both at high school and college newspapers, and students and faculty advisers had few alternatives. However, with the rise of the counterculture of the 1960s, student publications began to explore social issues with greater fervor, focusing on issues such as the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, sexual orientation and other issues considered sensitive.[9]

In 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld that freedom of expression of students is protected under the First Amendment in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (393 U.S. 503). Following that precedent, at least 125 other court cases in courts across the country were decided in favor of student expression and against administrative censorship. Whenever an instance of censorship involved action from a government employee such as a school principal or a college dean, the courts held that First Amendment constitutional safeguards applies.[9][10] Under this precedent, courts recognized student newspapers as public forums where student expression could only be restricted if they could prove substantial disruption of school activities was imminent. School administrators had been opposed to this interpretation.[11] Two additional cases in following years, Healy v. James (408 U.S. 169) in 1972 and Papish v. University of Missouri Curators (410 U.S. 670) in 1973, expanded the First Amendment rights of students on college campuses, but did not strongly define the status of student newspapers as a forum.[12][13]

By the 1980s, however, with the end of the student protest era, school administrators sought to reassert their authority. The first case in the new trend, Bethel School District v. Fraser (478 U.S. 675) in 1986, involved the discipline of a high school student for delivering a speech containing sexual innuendos, even though they were not obscene or disruptive in a legal sense. Overturning lower courts in the case, the Supreme Court clarified that the ruling of the Tinker case did not apply because the penalties imposed by the school were unrelated to a political viewpoint.[14][15]

Lower court decisions

The case was introduced in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri. The students sought a declaration that their First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment rights had been violated by undue actions of a public official,[7] as well as injunctive relief and monetary damages. After a bench trial, the district court denied the injunction and monetary damages.[16] The court reached its decision in May 1985,[7] in which the district court held that school officials may restrain student speech in activities that "are an integral part of the school's educational function," as long as the decision has "a substantial and reasonable basis." The court held that no violation of First Amendment rights had occurred.[16]

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit reversed the decision in January 1986.[7] The court held that, at the outset, The Spectrum was not only a part of the school program, but also a public forum. The newspaper was "intended to be and operated as a conduit for student viewpoint."[16] As a public forum, the court ruled, The Spectrum could not be censored unless "necessary to avoid material and substantial interference with school work or discipline ... or the rights of others."[16][4]

The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari in January 1987,[7] and the case was argued on October 13, 1987. On January 13, 1988, the court handed down its decision.[3]

Supreme Court ruling

In a 5-3 ruling, the Supreme Court overturned the decision of the circuit court.[17] Its majority opinion set a precedent that school-sponsored activities, including student newspapers and drama productions are not normally protected from administrative censorship by the First Amendment.[18][19]

Majority opinion

Associate Justice Byron White wrote the court's majority opinion.

The majority of the justices held that the principal was entitled to censor the articles.[20] The majority opinion, penned by Associate Justice Byron White, stated officials never intended the school paper to be a public forum as were underground publications in cases past. White went on to say educators do not infringe on First Amendment rights when exercising control over student speech in school-sponsored activities "so long as their actions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns."[21] The court established that the student publication could be regulated by school officials, and that they "reserved the forum for its intended purpose, as a supervised learning experience for journalism students."[18]

"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. ... (Judicial action to protect students' rights is justified) only when the decision to censor a school-sponsored publication, theatrical production or other vehicle of student expression has no valid educational purpose."[18][22]

The decision overrode the precedent set in the Tinker case. The 1969 decision had permitted censorship of student speech only if it violated the rights of other students or if it threatened to cause a campus disruption. The majority opinion held that this case was different.[21][7] The justices said the school administrators are not required to tolerate speech that is contrary to the school's academic mission.[2] The majority opinion continued:

"The question whether the First Amendment requires a school to tolerate particular student speech—the question we addressed in Tinker—is different from the question whether the First Amendment requires a school affirmatively to promote particular student speech. The former question addresses educators' ability to silence students' personal expression that happens to occur on the school premises. The latter question concerns educators' authority over school sponsored publications, theatrical productions, and other expressive activities that students, parents, and members of the public might reasonably perceive to bear the imprimatur of the school."[18][23]

The ruling did not affect existing laws at the state and local level which protect student journalists, instead stating that, in absence of other rules barring administrative censorship, the First Amendment does not protect student publications.[18] By 2010 seven states—Arkansas, California, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Massachusetts and Oregon had such laws on their books, and another 13 states were considering them.[24] In a footnote, the court also clarified that it did not see that the ruling necessarily applied at the collegiate level.[9]

Dissenting opinion

Associate Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. wrote the dissenting opinion.

Associate Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. wrote a dissenting opinion,[25] in which he was joined by Associate Justices Thurgood Marshall and Harry Blackmun, who often took liberal positions on First Amendment issues. In his opinion, Brennan expressed concern about the message the majority opinion would send students.[18]

"The young men and women of Hazelwood East expected a civics lesson, but not the one the Court teaches them today...Such unthinking contempt for individual rights is intolerable from any state official. It is particularly insidious from (a school principal) to whom the public entrusts the task of inculcating in its youth an appreciation for the cherished democratic liberties that our constitution guarantees."[18]


The case established the standard school personnel must meet before limiting students' freedom of expression in secondary schools.[11] As representatives of the state, school administrators can censor, restrain or publish school-sponsored student expression if it interferes with the requirements of school discipline, interferes with students' rights, interferes with academic propriety, generates health or welfare concerns, or is deemed obscene or vulgar.[7] This extends to theatrical productions, public speeches in an assembly environment, and publications produces as part of curricular activity, such as a student newspaper.[7] The majority termed these reasons "legitimate pedagogical concerns."[2][26]

The standard does not, however, apply to personal communication or non-school-sponsored communication, off-campus publications and non-school-sponsored speech, unless it interferes with school discipline or the rights of others.[7] The case establishes student newspapers as "limited public forums."[11] This means schools may exercise prior restraint as to "style and content" of a student paper so long as their action is "not unreasonable", where there previously had to be compelling evidence to warrant censorship.[13] Separate cases also established what constituted school activities, such as in-class parties and art created by students at the behest of teachers.[27]

Web-based student publications not subsidized by the school have been one student response to the ruling.[26] Some individual states have also responded with laws designating student newspapers as public forums and offering them greater First Amendment protection.[28] Experts from the Student Press Law Center have contended that the case has meant fewer lawsuits regarding student censorship make it to court.[8]

Subsequent jurisprudence

While the Supreme Court indicated the Hazelwood did not necessarily apply at the collegiate level, some federal appeals courts have held that it applied at college newspapers while other appeals courts have not.[29] Courts have also been split on viewpoint-based expression in schools, such as religion.[30] A variety of cases have appeared citing the Hazelwood case, citing whether or not a school should have the ability to regulate student dress or speech that certain ethnic groups might find offensive. In other cases though, courts have used the Tinker decision to support student speech if it isn't found to be disruptive or offensive.[31]

A 1989 case, Alabama Student Party v. Student Government Assn. (867 F.2d 1344), held that campus newspapers that are part of a curriculum might not enjoy first amendment protection.[29] A notable 2005 U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit court decision, Hosty v. Carter (412 U.S. 731), held that Hazelwood also applied to subsidized student media at the college level.[9] That ruling, though controversial, found there was "no sharp difference between high school and college newspapers," noting that some are financially subsidized or produced by journalism classes.[32][33] Students' rights to speech were further explored in the 2007 decision Morse v. Frederick (551 U.S. 393) which found the First Amendment did not protect student speech that could be "reasonably viewed as promoting drug use."[34]

A 2001 case in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, Kincaid v. Gibson (236 F. 3d 342), ruled that Hazelwood did not apply at the college level in that instance.[29] The court found in that case that a student publication could not be censored if the censorship is not viewpoint-neutral.[32] The subsequent case Dean v. Utica dealt specifically with what defines a "legitimate pedagogical concern" as used in the Hazelwood case. That case found a school had censored speech wantonly.[15]

See also



  1. ^ a b Bloomfield 2007, p. 66.
  2. ^ a b c Russo 2009, p. 419.
  3. ^ a b c d e Russo 2009, p. 421.
  4. ^ a b c Alexander & Alexander 2011, p. 283.
  5. ^ a b c d Bloomfield 2007, p. 67.
  6. ^ Parker 2003, p. 250.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Parker 2003, p. 251.
  8. ^ a b c McGowan, Bailey (January 14, 2013), 25 years later, a look at one generation under Hazelwood,  
  9. ^ a b c d Belmas & Overbeck 2009, p. 587.
  10. ^ Alexander & Alexander 2011, p. 281.
  11. ^ a b c Russo 2009, p. 420.
  12. ^ Belmas & Overbeck 2009, p. 588.
  13. ^ a b Alexander & Alexander 2011, p. 280.
  14. ^ Belmas & Overbeck 2009, p. 589.
  15. ^ a b Blokhuis et al. 2013, p. 116.
  16. ^ a b c d Russo 2009, p. 422.
  17. ^ Russo 2009, p. 425.
  18. ^ a b c d e f g Belmas & Overbeck 2009, p. 591.
  19. ^ Alexander & Alexander 2011, p. 279.
  20. ^ Russo 2009, p. 423.
  21. ^ a b Belmas & Overbeck 2009, p. 590.
  22. ^ Alexander & Alexander 2011, p. 284.
  23. ^ Alexander & Alexander 2011, p. 285.
  24. ^ Belmas & Overbeck 2009, p. 592.
  25. ^ Russo 2009, p. 424.
  26. ^ a b Hanson 2007, p. 444.
  27. ^ Blokhuis et al. 2013, p. 114.
  28. ^ Belmas & Overbeck 2009, p. 596.
  29. ^ a b c Belmas & Overbeck 2009, p. 594.
  30. ^ Blokhuis et al. 2013, p. 117.
  31. ^ Blokhuis et al. 2013, p. 118.
  32. ^ a b Belmas & Overbeck 2009, p. 595.
  33. ^ Alexander & Alexander 2011, p. 287.
  34. ^ Hanson 2007, p. 446.


  • Alexander, Kern; Alexander, Klinton (2011), American College and University Law: Policy and Perspectives,  
  • Belmas, Genelle; Overbeck, Wayne (2009), Major Principles of Media Law: 2010 Edition,  
  • Blokhuis, J.C.; Feldman, Jonathan; van Geel, Tyll; Imber, Michael (2013), Education Law,  
  • Bloomfield, David C. (2007), American Public Education Law Primer,  
  • Hanson, Ralph E. (2007), Mass Communication: Living in a Media World: Second Edition,  
  • Parker, Richard (2003), Free Speech On Trial: Communication Perspectives on Landmark Supreme Court Decisions,  
  • Russo, Charles J. (2009), Encyclopedia of Education Law,  

External links

  • Text of Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U.S. 260 (1988) is available from:  Justia  LII  UMKC School of Law 
  • Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier: A complete guide to the decision
  • First Amendment Rights Diagram (shows whether Hazelwood or Tinker standard is applicable)
  • State student free expression laws and regulations
  • The Supreme Court on "Hazelwood": A Reversal on Regulation of Student Expression
  • Much information on the case including the arguments
Research resources
  • Student Press Law Center white paper on the case
  • Hazelwood v. KuhlmeierFirst Amendment Library entry on
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