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Anniversary of School Censorship Case an Opportunity to Change

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This Saturday marks the 25th anniversary of one of the dumbest things the Supreme Court has ever done to damage the educational process: the decision in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier.

In Hazelwood, the Court found that a Missouri high school had the right to censor its school-sponsored newspaper because it contained stories about teen pregnancy and divorce -- two topics that might be "inappropriate" for younger teens.

Prior to Hazelwood, the right to speak freely in classrooms was governed by Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, which says the First Amendment protects student speech except when the speech presents a substantial risk of physical disruption. Hazelwood lowered that bar substantially when the speech is "curricular," or attached to an educational activity in some way: a school need only provide a justification for censorship that is "reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns."

Since then, Hazelwood has become the standard justification for silencing speech in schools. And make no mistake -- a great deal of speech is being silenced. In November, the Student Press Law Center, the National Scholastic Press Association, and the Journalism Education Association administered a survey at the National High School Journalism Convention in San Antonio, Texas. Over 40 percent of students and advisers surveyed said school officials had ordered them not to publish something.

There is so much wrong with Hazelwood that I won't attempt a comprehensive response. I only raise the following questions:

Twenty-five years later, is there anyone left who thinks that teen pregnancy is an inappropriate topic in high schools? And divorce is no longer a taboo subject -- charting celebrity divorces is practically popular culture. With half of marriages ending in divorce, is it ever too early to discuss this topic?

Twenty-five years later, is it time to admit that Hazelwood is used to censor religious and personal viewpoints far more than it is to fulfill any legitimate purpose, curricular or otherwise? When Silsbee Independent School District gave a cheerleader the choice between cheering for the player she identified as her rapist or going home, it claimed it had a "legitimate pedagogical concern," and it won. If you can find a legitimate pedagogical reason to cheer for your rapist, please stay away from children.

Twenty-five years later, when four Federal circuits have applied Hazelwood to colleges -- permitting even government-run graduate schools to censor the speech of adults because the school didn't like the messages -- is it time to admit that Hazelwood does not now, and did not ever, have any real connection to the age of the students involved?

And most of all, 25 years later, isn't it time to admit that the dumbest thing about the Hazelwood standard is that we are only beginning to realize how truly limited our understanding of pedagogy has been? Many students don't learn effectively in the No Child Left Behind, test-and-discipline driven model.

Isn't the overall message of the last 25 years of education that our pedagogical model is broken?

Coincidentally, this week, Michelle Rhee's lobbying organization, StudentsFirst, put out its "report card" for state education policies. The report evaluated three areas -- teaching, parent empowerment (a euphemism for school choice vouchers), and spending. What a coup, for StudentsFirst to find a way to evaluate schools that scrupulously avoids analyzing, mentioning, or otherwise acknowledging the existence of students. Based on the StudentsFirst report, you wouldn't know whether the students were human children or Hummel figurines.

Students First, indeed. It's like the ASPCA putting out an animal cruelty scorecard that avoids actually referencing the existence of animals.

That said, whether you agree with StudentsFirst or not about the state of our schools, there is certainly a wide-spread dissatisfaction with the status quo of education in this country. And yet, we limit the civil rights of the victims of this shortcoming to the "legitimate interests" in preserving the pedagogical status quo.

The people best situated to tell us what's happening in schools are students. If we hadn't told America's students to shut up and sit down 25 years ago in Hazelwood, wouldn't we be better off?

And if we do nothing to stop Hazelwood, then isn't the real crisis in American education our total indifference to our own students?

Visit Cure Hazelwood (an SPLC project) for more on how to fight Hazelwood.

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