Journalism 101

Featured School Papers:

Know Your J-Jargon

editor: The top-ranking individual in the news department of a newspaper, also known as the editor in chief. The term may refer as well to those at any level who edit copy. News Reporting & Writing (Eighth Edition) by the Missouri Group. Copyright 2005. Reproduced by permission of Bedford/St. Martins.

Learn more J-Jargon »

3 landmark legal cases student journalists should know

Three landmark student journalism legal cases you ought to know.

Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 U.S. 503 (1969)

"It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their Constitutional rights to freedom of expression at the schoolhouse gate. Students in school as well as out of school are 'persons' under our Constitution. They are possessed of fundamental rights which the State must respect. …" Justice Abe Fortas wrote for the majority.

The Court ruled as long as there is not "substantial disruption of or material interference with school activities," the students' freedom to express themselves is protected by the First Amendment.

Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U.S. 260 (1988)

This decision enabled administrators to prevent publication of material when their censorship was "reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns."

The Court, however, left that phrase undefined, saying only a court should act to protect student expression when the censorship has "no valid educational purpose."

Not everyone agreed this ruling was sound.

"My students' ability to publish controversial material is now in every respect dependent on my attitudes, my thoughts and my willingness to be vulnerable in front of my superintendent, my board of education and my community," Franklin McCallie, former principal at Kirkwood (Mo.) High School, wrote.

"Before the ruling there was a spontaneity, even a tension which was healthy and democratic and educational and growth-producing. We have lost that under the new rules."

It is important to note Hazelwood does not say administrators must censor; it only says under certain conditions they may.

Yeo v. Town of Lexington, 131 F.3d 241(1st Cir. 1997)

Students at two public high school student publications — the newspaper and yearbook — decided not to publish an advertisement. The ad promoted sexual abstinence and was submitted by a parent, Douglas Yeo, in the aftermath of a decision by the school district to make condoms available to students. He had campaigned against the condom distribution policy and lost.

The two high school student publications declined to publish the advertisement on the grounds each had a policy, albeit unwritten, of not running political or advocacy ads. The courts found that the state, meaning the school, had not been involved in rejecting the ads, students had. So it could not be held responsible for the decisions they made.

"The decision emphasizes that schools have more to fear by censoring than by leaving content determinations to student editors," said Mark Goodman, Knight Chair of Scholastic Journalism at Kent State University and former executive director of the Student Press Law Center. A "hands-off" policy, he said, is actually more likely to protect a school from liability.

In reaching its decision in Yeo, the court reinforced standards long espoused by the Journalism Education Association:

  • Administrators who do not censor or practice prior review are not liable for content. Had school officials (including advisers) in Yeo made decisions for students, Yeo might well have won his case.
  • State laws protecting student free expression are important. Massachusetts has such a law.
  • Providing financial support does not mean school authorities must control content.
  • Precisely-worded policies calling publications forums for student expression and giving students decision-making responsibility for content are vital.

The First Amendment and School Publications

Hazelwood also did not overturn or challenge Tinker. Instead, it added a parallel set of rules that confused the issue of student free expression. Under some conditions, high school students have the right to free expression; under others they do not. When they do and when they do not seem to be at the whims of administrators across the country — and administrators don't seem to agree.

By John Bowen for the Principal's Guide to Scholastic Journalism. Published by the Quill and Scroll Society.