February 10, 1988
Free the world ... but not it's students:
Editor -in-chief speaks out on student rights
by Meredith Brammeier
1988. A year of graduation for some students. Just another 52 weeks for others. And for many Americans, the possibility of the beginnings of nuclear disarmament, the beginnings of a feeling of safety in human hearts world-wide, the beginnings of a promising, if shaky, peace.
The establishment of peace among nations has always been important in the eyes of the United States; a recent manifestation of this desire for peace can be found in the Final Declaration of the 1975 Conference on Security and Co-Operation in Europe, otherwise known as the Helsinki Accords. This document, signed by the U.S., the Soviet Union, and 33 other nations including nearly all European nations, states in part:
The participating States recognize the unusual significance of human rights and fundamental freedoms, respect for which is an essential factor for the peace, justice and well-being necessary to ensure the development of friendly relations and co-operation among themselves as among all States .... The participating States reaffirm the universal significance of respect for and effective exercise of equal rights and self-determination of peoples for the development of friendly relations among themselves as among all States.
With this and other such measures, the U.S. is attempting to promote peace and freedom throughout the world, believing it is setting one of the first and foremost examples of these "fundamental freedoms."
However, the U.S. is finding it difficult to define these "fundamental freedoms" even within its own borders. In the 1960's, the country was disturbed by inner turmoil, characterized by everything from civil rights activism to protests against U.S. involvement in Vietnam. This turmoil created a divided country far from peace and resulted in important decisions regarding freedom in America.
One such decision was the 1969 Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District which declared that "neither students nor teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate." This decision put an end to controversy regarding student rights, and for nearly twenty years a sense of peace has reigned over the public school system.
But today, 1988, controversy is once again erupting over what rights students do and do not have. A recent Supreme Court decision, made on January 13, ruled that "educators do not offend the First Amendment by exercising editorial control over the style and content of student speech in school-sponsored expressive activities." The case involved a student newspaper, The Spectrum, which was published by a journalism class at Hazelwood East High School in Hazelwood, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis.
In May of 1983, two articles, one about teen pregnancy, the other about divorce, were deleted from the paper by Hazelwood East's principal Robert Reynolds. Three student staff members, Cathy Kuhlmeier, Lee Ann Tippett-West, and Leslie Smart, took the case to the courts, believing their First Amendment right to a free press had been violated. The case resulted in the Supreme Court ruling that Reynolds did, in fact, have the right to delete the articles.
This decision in favor of the school officials has planted dissent in the hearts of many student editors and advisers across the nation as well as student liberties organizations. Members of these groups believe that the Supreme Court has violated the students' right to free speech. Mr. Tom Kerth, newspaper adviser at Maine South, voiced his opinion concerning the decision, stating, "Unfortunately, this decision is part of a groundswell of opinion against the excesses of the press in general, and while the criticism has some merit, the worst possible approach to take is to limit students' rights to free expression. If students are not allowed to speak freely, and sometimes to make mistakes, how can we expect our future journalists to write and speak with wise and responsible judgment? To limit the freedom to speak on the school level is to guarantee problems with expression later on at the professional level."
Some student editors are unsure as to how this decision will affect their newspapers. As Maura Scott, Co-Editor-in-Chief of Southwords stated, "Due to the fact that the Supreme Court decision concerns a newspaper which was a classroom project, I am uncertain of the repercussions it will have for Southwords, an extracurricular project." No matter what the editors' feelings, however, there are some ideas in Supreme Court Justice Byron White's majority opinion which seem flawed to the student journalist.
White wrote that, in addition to being concerned that the identities of three girls about whom the pregnancy story was written were not well enough concealed, Reynolds "also believed that the article's references to sexual activity and birth control were inappropriate for some of the younger students at school."
White also said, "It was not unreasonable for the principal to have concluded that such frank talk was inappropriate in a school-sponsored publication distributed to fourteen-year-old freshmen and presumably taken home to be ready by students' even younger brothers and sisters."
These two statements lead to two questions which Justice White may find difficult to answer: first, with the number of unwed mothers as high as it is among today's teenagers, is it not important to inform these teenagers about such matters rather than leave them in the dark until they're, say 18, 21, or perhaps even 30, and old enough to handle this information? Second, is the 'sex and violence' found in books, in magazines, in moves, on television, and in daily newspapers around the house more difficult for "younger brothers and sisters" to find than an informative article in a student newspaper? Information has generally been deemed far better than ignorance, but Justice White apparently does not agree.
Another distressing factor in this case concerns the article on divorce. A student believed by Reynolds to be quoted by name made derogatory comments toward her father. As Justice White wrote: "Reynolds believed that the student's parents should have been given an opportunity to respond to these remarks or to consent to their publication," which is common practice among journalists. However, Reynolds "was unaware that [newspaper adviser] Emerson had deleted the student's name from the final version of the article" This was a disappointing neglect on the side of the principal, who could have avoided at least part of the conflict had he been in possession of all the information concerning the articles and not just part of it.
Could this conflict have been avoided? Many people, adults and students alike, believe it could. As Maine South principal Dr. Thomas Cachur stated, "Communication is the key." If Reynolds would have communicated more clearly with the students, they might have been able to come to a mutual agreement and solve the problem by revising the articles in question.
At Maine South in the 1970's, when many controversial articles were printed in the student newspaper, a press council comprised of students and faculty was set up to circumvent such problems. The council critiqued the articles and provided a means of discussion about controversial articles between students and faculty members, including the Assistant Principal. According to Mr. Otto Kohler, Social Science Department Chair, this kind of set-up "gives a kind of sounding board to the students."
Of the present controversy, Mr. Kohler stated, "I do think a free press is vital to society." However, he added that it must also be governed by good taste.
Dr. Cachur believes that he has always had the right and responsibility to make sure the student editors are acting responsibly, and he commented, "I [don't] think that the decision [has] any impact on my relationship with the student newspaper." He added that if there ever is a question regarding an article, he will communicate with the adviser and editors in order to solve the problem. He also stated that he does not believe this decision is the death knell of student publications.
Mr. Kerth, however, has his doubts about the decision, stating, "The school's fundamental mission is to teach students to become productive, active citizens of the community, nation, and world. The curriculum is the tool we use to accomplish this goal, but when the student learns about the First Amendment in his Social Science class, then goes to his journalism class and learns that the First Amendment doesn't really exist for him, what lesson have we taught him? If he can't believe in the power of the First Amendment, how much faith can he have in anything else we teach him?"
These and similar concerns reveal that student editors and advisers are still wary of the Supreme Court decision and wonder what its repercussions will be in the near and far future. Many students are considering underground newspapers as an alternate route to freedom of the press if their voices should be stifled in school papers. The calm peace regarding student rights which has existed for the past twenty years is experiencing ripples which may turn to waves, depending on future actions and decisions. The United States, which recognizes the significance of human rights and fundamental freedoms in creating world peace, should scrutinize very carefully the significance of human rights and freedoms in relation to peace within its own borders, for it has some significant questions to face regarding First Amendment rights in 1988.