Importance of Student Journalism

By Kaitlyn Ketchell, Reporter

In an age where information is more easily accessible than ever before, it’s the job of student journalists to ensure their community is well-informed and reading information that is factual and honest. However, this information might not always be what the community wants to hear, which is when censorship can become an issue for student journalists. 

Censorship is a complicated matter and the legality often depends on the content that is being censored, the creator of the content, and who wants to censor the content. Censorship of student publications is illegal in most cases unless the censorship is carried out by a student editor or adviser.

Public student publications are protected by the First Amendment that protects the freedom of speech and press. Because public school officials don’t own student publications, they legally cannot censor any part of the student publication. Unfortunately, the First Amendment does not protect student publications in private schools (because the publishers legally own the publication), so censorship of those publications is usually based on local or state laws. 

Perhaps one of the most famous cases regarding censorship is the Tinker v. Des Moines case of 1969. Mary Beth Tinker was suspended from Warren Harding Junior High School for wearing a black armband in protest of the Vietnam War. Tinker and her family sued the school district, saying it was violating her First Amendment rights. The case eventually made its way up to the Supreme Court, who ruled that it was a violation of the First Amendment and that student speech is protected by the First Amendment (with the exception of speech that invades the rights of others/unprotected speech). 

Now, what is unprotected speech? Examples of unprotected speech are defamation, libel, slander, invasion of privacy, copyright infringement, obscenity, “fighting words,” or threats. A student publication putting any of the above forms of speech into their publication can be subject to legal censorship. 

The “Tinker Standard” that protected student rights was used until 1988 with the Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier case. The Spectrum newspaper at Hazelwood East High School was censored after trying to publish articles on divorce and teenage pregnancy. The articles were deemed inappropriate for a high school audience and were removed from the publication. The Spectrum’s editor filed a lawsuit against the district for that censorship, and the case made its way up to the Supreme Court, who surprisingly ruled in favor of the district, claiming that because the Spectrum was a school-sponsored publication, they were within their rights to censor it. 

The “Hazelwood Standard” proposed that school-sponsored student media could be censored if the sponsors could prove a “reasonable” educational justification for their censorship. There were many problems with the Hazelwood Standard, such as the fact that it not only failed to protect student speech as much as the Tinker Standard did, but it was also much more vague and provided more opportunities for “justified” censorship. 

But that changed again in 2004 with the Dean v. Utica case. Utica High School’s Arrow newspaper was censored after attempting to publish an article regarding an ongoing lawsuit against the district. Katy Dean, editor of the Arrow, filed a lawsuit against the district, claiming their censorship was unconstitutional. The case didn’t make it to the Supreme Court like Tinker and Hazelwood did, but a district court ruled in favor of Dean, stating that the Hazelwood Standard didn’t justify the censorship of the Arrow’s articles. This ruling chipped away at the Hazelwood Standard and began to save the rights of student publications across the country.

What does all of this mean for student journalists in Colorado? The existence of the Colorado Student Free Expression Law protects all Colorado students and student journalists from censorship of any speech that is protected (unprotected speech mentioned earlier isn’t protected by this law) by the First Amendment. And as student journalists who are dedicated to bringing the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth to our community, it is our job not only to take full advantage of this law but to stand up to anyone who challenges it.