The First Amendment in Murky Waters

Are student journalists really protected by the First Amendment? The answer is clouded with confusion.  Students in a Journalism II class at Hazelwood East High School faced a problem when the school principal decided that two of the articles submitted for publication were too inappropriate for the school’s website. The articles contained stories on divorce and teenage pregnancy which involved first account experiences of girls that were attending that same high school. One of the other articles was about a divorced father that was being accused about the cause of the separation.  Although the names were changed, possibility of people identifying the students was still possible. The principal decided that there was not a sufficient amount of time to edit the articles and instead deleted the articles completely. Student and plaintiff Catherine Kuhlmeier then argued the suit to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri on October 13, 1987 stating that her First Amendment rights had been violated.

     On January 13, 1988 the court decided that the high school principal was right about deleting the articles even without consulting with the class about it beforehand. Upset about the the outcome, Kuhlmeier took the case to the Supreme Court. The court ruled that school officials could exercise prior restraint if and when a student newspaper was produced as a “regular classroom activity” rather than a “forum for public expression.” The reasoning behind the case was that the principal’s actions did not violate their first amendment rights and that the school website was that the paper was not created for a public forum, but instead was created for students to write articles about their teacher’s requirements. While most college journalists are protected by the First Amendment, the covering of “free speech” is unclear when it comes to high school student journalists. This case, although it perplexed the rights of student journalists,  helped establish the standard for censorship of school newspapers.