High school students continue to find that their First Amendment rights are invisible to school administrators, despite years of struggle against censorship. In the ’60s, students at some schools published underground papers because their school-run papers were so heavily censored. In the ’70s and ’80s, a consensus grew that First Amendment protections extended to the official student press, and school newspapers were allowed to tackle controversial topics. But high school journalists found this freedom short-lived. In a 1988 case involving Hazelwood East High School near St. Louis, where student journalists wanted to publish stories on teenage pregnancy and divorce in the school newspaper, the U. S. Supreme Court ruled five to three that principals have the right to censor school papers. The majority opinion said that school-sponsored newspapers and similar activities are not intended as a public forum for student views, but are part of the curriculum and therefore subject to official control to ensure that they meet program purposes. After announcing the decision, Justice Byron R. White added that a school need not tolerate student speech that is incongruous with the educational goals of the institution–although the government could not censor similar speech outside school grounds.


The ruling had an immediate impact on student journalists in the Bay Area. At Homestead High School in Cupertino, the principal pulled an article about AIDS from the student paper, The Epitaph, only hours after the court’s decision was announced. Principal Jim Warren told the San Francisco Chronicle that he stopped publication of the article because he was concerned about his legal responsibilities in light of the majority opinion. Mark Goodman, an attorney with the Student Press Law Center, which counsels school journalism advisers and their students, told the Chronicle that he had received many calls from students and advisers in tears.

They had reason to be concerned. In 1994, Oakland High School’s paper, The Aegis, battled principal Joanne Grimm’s effort to stop student journalists from conducting and publishing a sex survey. Grimm–whose husband, Roy Grimm, had recently retired from his position as managing editor of the Oakland Tribune–told the Montclarion that the survey was an “invasion of privacy” and that the questions were “incriminating.” The students contended that the information was needed because the campus had “woefully inadequate sex education and teen parenting and pregnancy services.” The editor of the paper that year, Phuong Tran, said the survey sought to illuminate the need for an improved curriculum and on-site parenting and pregnancy services.

Paul August, the paper’s advisor, remembers, “The Tribune story also stated the day when The Aegis would be printed and distributed. Much to my surprise, in all my 32 years of teaching, this was the only time the printer did not make our deadline.” In addition, Grimm refused to let local TV stations get through to August on the school phone. “That’s when I got a cell phone, and I’ve had one ever since,” August says. And this time, the students won their fight: The Aegis was distributed a day late, and the paper has encountered no attempts at censorship since then.

In a similar case in 1997, the Newport-Mesa Unified School District in Orange County censored articles in Costa Mesa High’s Pony Express-Hitching Post that dealt with sex and sexuality. These articles included staff reporter Gretchen Adelmund’s story about Jamie, who practiced safe sex on her prom night but still got pregnant, and Kim Daniels’s essay expressing her views on teenage sexuality. Pony Express-Hitching Post editor Carrie Miller and her staff protested to school officials about the censorship. In addition, Miller’s father, attorney Michael Miller, reviewed the California Education Code and brought the matter to the attention of the local school board.

Section 48907 of the education code states that “students of the public schools shall have the right to exercise freedom of speech and of the press including, but not limited to, the use of bulletin boards, the distribution of printed materials or petitions, the wearing of buttons, badges, and other insignia, and the right of expression in official publications, whether or not such publications or other means of expression are supported financially by the school or [make use] of school facilities.”

Michael Miller also wrote letters to and met with principal Andrew Hernandez. He says he was “surprised and disappointed” at school officials’ uncooperative manner. “I am particularly concerned because we are dealing with educators who should set an example,” Miller wrote in a letter to Media Alliance. “If such articles are allowed to be excluded, we are all in trouble.” Eventually, however, he and the students prevailed: Though the censored stories were never printed, the school changed its rules to conform to the education code and hired new faculty advisers who were more supportive of student expression.

Unfortunately, most student journalists don’t have the benefit of attorney parents willing to fight for their legal rights. Due to heavy censorship and lack of support for the official school paper, students at San Francisco’s Thurgood Marshall High School are putting out an underground newspaper that’s distributed regularly to students’ lockers. And it’s not only the school paper that’s being censored. School administrators had a student-government campaign poster torn down because of its content, according to Nancy Otto of the ACLU, which has filed suit on behalf of the student who made the poster. “I think the problem is that schools get very nervous when students talk about very charged issues because they think it might embarrass the school,” Otto says. She adds that schools don’t know how to react to controversial speech except by silencing students, but that often causes more problems.

Students in many cases are offended by the idea that they are not mature enough to handle topics such as divorce, sex, date rape, gangs, teen pregnancy, and AIDS–all common concerns in teenage lives. Those who censor student speech on these topics seem hypocritical. “My parents were divorced when I was pregnant my junior year. Who else will know this subject better than I do? I lived through it,” says Brenda J., who will be a senior this fall at Mission High School.

They thought that the issues that we covered were too ‘grown up.'”

Jennifer Campuzano, who graduated in the spring from Oakland High School, was news editor at her school paper. She remembers complaints from the administrators. “They thought that the issues that we covered were too ‘grown up.’ One time we were blamed for not writing our own stories because it sounded too mature.”

Many of the stories Campuzano covered were controversial. She wrote an investigative report on the millions of tax dollars that were misused by the school board while many Oakland schools had inadequate learning materials. She also wrote opinion columns on apathetic adults in the school and community. “Surprisingly, only complaints came out of the many articles,” Campuzano says. “We were never censored, but we received many bad vibes.” Campuzano believes that writing for her school newspaper helped her to shape her own philosophy in life, and that other students should get the same opportunity.

High school papers not only allow young people to write about issues that matter to them, but also give them an opportunity to educate one another. Student expression should be prohibited only if it’s “obscene, libelous, or slanderous,” according to the California Education Code, or if it’s “material which so incites students as to create a clear and present danger of the commission of unlawful acts on school premises or the violation of lawful school regulations, or the substantial disruption of the orderly operation of the school.” Any more censorship than that is too much.

I was editor-in-chief of The Aegis, and experienced the pressure of others pushing me and my staff to be “politically correct” –in essence, to go with the flow and agree with their ideas. Administrators should realize that the world young people live in is not a fairy tale. Allowing students to write about their experiences can mean a world of change for them, and at the same time educate those in need. I’ve seen it happen. It’s important now more than ever to have students educate each other, because many young people can’t talk with their parents or other adults about personal issues without fear.

If students are covered by the Bill of Rights, then let them learn that with these rights come responsibilities. Let students publish their works without censorship, and hold them accountable for their own research and writing. Youths should be given a chance to understand that not everyone has the same opinion, and that if their views are controversial, then they are bound to get complaints. Besides, student newspapers are about the only avenue available for young people to express their views to a wide audience. And isn’t that ability what the First Amendment was intended to protect?

In their dissent to the 1988 Supreme Court ruling, justices William Brennan, Thurgood Marshall, and Harry Blackmun wrote that censorship “in no way furthers the curricular purposes of a student newspaper, unless one believes that the purpose of the school newspaper is to teach students that the press ought never report bad news, express unpopular views, or print a thought that might upset its sponsors.”

Free speech is an important principle and should be an educational practice for all public schools in America. Censorship in high school newspapers will always be a reminder to students that their rights are limited under the law, that their speech may be silenced, and that they are less than equal citizens.

Lian Cheun graduated in June from Oakland High School and will be attending U. C. Berkeley in the fall. She’s interested in the fields of communication and education. She is also the 1998 winner of the Media Alliance Jesicca Mitford scholarship.

Source: Media File, Volume 17 #4, Sep-Oct 1998