Source: FREEDOM FORUM, Date: February 1994, Title: DEATH BY CHEESEBURGER: High School journalism in the 1990s and Beyond, Authors: Alice Bonner and Judith Hines
SSU Censored Researcher: Jennifer Bums
SYNOPSIS: In 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the First Amendment did not apply to student journalists. In “Hazelwood School District vs. Kuhlmeier,” the Court ruled that the principal of Hazelwood East High School, near St. Louis, did not violate the First Amendment rights of students by deleting two pages of the campus newspaper which contained material he found offensive. In what some considered an unconstitutional act, the Court gave school administrators the power to practice prior restraint over student newspapers.
Surprisingly, this unprecedented action generated little outrage among professional journalists, who might have been expected to spring
1. The defense of student journalists. In fact, many of the 1988 editorials commenting on Hazelwood in the professional press almost seemed to mock the students for their arrogance in believing they should be allowed to cover what was important to them. Comparing the principal to a newspaper publisher, they said young people might as well learn early that reporters and editors don’t always get their way.
Not surprisingly, high school principals who want to control the student press seized upon Hazelwood as a justification for prior review or for restriction of subjects students can write about. The Student Press Law Center (SPLC), which monitors student press rights, has reported an increase in requests for assistance with censorship problems from high school journalists since Hazelwood. The student publications that call SPLC report censorship of articles, editorials, and advertisements considered controversial. Advisers report threats to their jobs if they refuse to follow school officials’ orders to censor material.
The chilling effect of Hazelwood is also reflected in the quality of the student press. An in-depth analysis of high school journalism by The Freedom Forum, a non-partisan organization dedicated to a free press, found that 72 percent of 233 student newspapers were either “average” or “boring.” The study also reported that of 270 high school newspaper advisors, 37 percent admitted that school principals had rejected newspaper articles or required changes.
In a foreword to the study, John Seigenthaler, chair of the Freedom Forum, warned of the threat of censorship to school newspapers. He also reproached the editors who rushed to endorse the press censorship in the Hazelwood decision in 1988 … and who since have defended the Court’s decision to crush high school press freedom. Seigenthaler also noted that the cases of outrageous censorship documented in the Freedom Forum’s 182-page report are “horror stories-gripping to read, oppressive to think about, offensive to the First Amendment.”
In describing how censorship can take hold quickly in a school, the report points out that “when students have been censored a number of times, they stop writing anything controversial, feeling that whatever they write either won’t make it into print or will get them into trouble with school administrators.”
Journalists already indoctrinated into accepting censorship at the high school level are well prepared to enter professional careers at publications more interested in maintaining the status quo than in muckraking. Perhaps this helps explain editors’ reluctance to criticize and publicize the Hazelwood decision and its impact.
COMMENTS: Co-authors Alice Bonner and Judith Hines point out that while Death By Cheeseburger was not itself a “censored” publication, it tells the story of “the failure of high school journalism to live up to its high potential because of lack of funding, teacher preparation, equipment, school credit, and, yes, often overt censorship of the students’ voices. The subject has received almost no exposure in the last 20 years, when `Captive Voices,’ the most recent in-depth study of the high school press was published. Both the good news of the writing, analytical, organizational and entrepreneurial skills students can gain from working on a high school newspaper, and the bad news about the weakness of scholastic journalism have received too little exposure.”
The authors feel that if the subject were to receive more coverage, teachers and students might receive a better journalism education, and teenagers and adults would benefit from hearing and reading the voices of young people-too seldom heard from today, especially concerning issues that affect them directly.
Those who benefit from the limited media coverage given the issue include “school administrators and other adults who fear losing control-who have little faith in giving teenagers responsibility so they can prove they can act responsibly.” And also those who have an investment in keeping things “the way we’ve always done it” in high school.
The Freedom Forum, seeking to increase the energy and support for high school journalism among educators, journalists, and especially young people, is distributing Death By Cheeseburger as widely as possible-offering a free copy to every high school and professional newspaper editor in the USA.