Freedom of the Press and Student Newspapers

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Generally, American journalists enjoy the freest press laws in the world, as guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. But attempts to censor student newspapers—usually high school publications—by officials who don't like controversial content are all-too-common. That's why it's important for student newspaper editors at both high schools and colleges to understand press law as it applies to them.

Can High School Papers Be Censored?

Unfortunately, the answer sometimes seems to be yes. Under the 1988 Supreme Court decision Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, school-sponsored publications can be censored if issues arise that are "reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns." So if a school can present a reasonable educational justification for its censorship, that censorship may be allowed.

What Does School-Sponsored Mean?

Is the publication supervised by a faculty member? Is the publication designed to impart particular knowledge or skills to student participants or audiences? Does the publication use the school's name or resources? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then the publication can be considered school-sponsored and can potentially be censored.

But according to the Student Press Law Center, the Hazelwood ruling doesn't apply to publications that have been opened as "public forums for student expression." What qualifies for this designation? When school officials have given student editors the authority to make their own content decisions. A school can do that either through an official policy or by simply allowing a publication to operate with editorial independence.

Some states — Arkansas, California, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Oregon and Massachusetts — have passed laws beefing up press freedoms for student papers. Other states are considering similar laws.

Can College Papers Be Censored?

Generally, no. Student publications at public colleges and universities have the same First Amendment rights as professional newspapers. The courts have generally held that the Hazelwood decision applies only to high school papers. Even if student publications receive funding or some other form of support from the college or university where they are based, they still have First Amendment rights, as do underground and independent student papers.

But even at public four-year institutions, some officials have tried to smother press freedom. For example, the Student Press Law Center reported that three editors of The Columns, the student paper at Fairmont State University, resigned in 2015 in protest after administrators tried to turn the publication into a PR mouthpiece for the school. This occurred after the paper did stories on the discovery of toxic mold in student housing.

What About Student Publications at Private Colleges?

The First Amendment only bars government officials from suppressing speech, so it can't prevent censorship by private school officials. As a result, student publications at private high schools and even colleges are more vulnerable to censorship.

Other Kinds of Pressure

Blatant censorship isn't the only way student papers can be pressured to change their content. In recent years many faculty advisers to student newspapers, at both the high school and college level, have been reassigned or even fired for refusing to go along with administrators who want to engage in censorship. For instance, Michael Kelly, faculty adviser to The Columns, was dismissed from his post after the paper published the toxic mold stories.

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Rogers, Tony. "Freedom of the Press and Student Newspapers." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Rogers, Tony. (2020, August 27). Freedom of the Press and Student Newspapers. Retrieved from Rogers, Tony. "Freedom of the Press and Student Newspapers." ThoughtCo. (accessed July 7, 2022).