Silenced: Administrators hinder students’ ability to voice their opinion

Even today, students don’t express themselves freely because of censorship.


Sophie Flores

Even today, some student newspapers are censored by their school administrators.

Deena Essa and Sophie Flores

While Mary Beth Tinker campaigned for freedom of scholastic press at the front of the Webster University auditorium to a group of enthusiastic student journalists, Katelyn Mary Skeggs and five of her fellow staff members sat in the back not paying attention. Freedom of speech didn’t really matter to them.

“I guess everyone thinks that with journalism you get freedom of the press,” Skeggs said. “But there are definitely people out there who don’t. And once you don’t have it you really just look at other publications like, ‘Oh my goodness, I would really like to do this so badly.’ But you just can’t.”

Skeggs had just learned what freedom of speech was. She also realized that her school newspaper wasn’t among those that enjoyed the privileges of freedom of speech.

American public high school newspapers have covered it all – from the school talent show to the local diner, to bullying and drugs and underage drinking – students nationwide have taken the initiative to increase awareness at their schools. It’s only to be expected that some of the content that is published in these newspapers is not flattering to the school administration and officials. What is not to be expected is that at some schools, administrators have the right to censor stories and decide on content.

The states where the Tinker Standard has helped students gain more freedom of speech rights in their schools: Arkansas, California, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Massachusetts and Oregon.
The states where the Tinker Standard has helped students gain more freedom of speech rights in their schools: Arkansas, California, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Massachusetts and Oregon. Designed by Grace Amundson.

Students do have First Amendment rights, but in school, their expression may be limited. School administration can interfere with publishing depending on the U.S. Supreme Court legal case the school newspaper is based on. The Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier case of 1988, and the Tinker v. Des Moines of 1969 are to date the most defining cases.

The Hazelwood case was brought to court after the staff of Hazelwood East’s newspaper, The Spectrum, was forced to withhold two stories about divorce and teenage pregnancy. The verdict was in favor of the Hazelwood School District. The Court ruled that high school officials could censor published content, excluding publications that are “public forums for student expression” by practice or policy, if  administrators had reasonable evidence that it would significantly disrupt the discipline of the school or interfere with the right of other students to learn.

“I think that administrators often are the ones who are the opponents [to freedom of speech],” MediaNowSTL instructor Adam Maksl said. “But I think that in a larger perspective, in some ways it’s sort of the culture that is the opponent to that. We don’t see kids as capable and that’s totally wrong. Kids are always capable of voicing important decisions and important movements.”

Conversely, several states like Alabama, California and Kansas have increased the freedom of speech at high school publications based on the Tinker standard. In 1965, three students, one of which was John Tinker, were suspended for wearing black armbands to their Iowa public schools in protest of the Vietnam War. The Supreme Court ruled that under the Tinker standard neither students nor teachers lose their First Amendment rights at school. It also stated that high school officials couldn’t just censor material due to a ‘mere desire to avoid the discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompany an unpopular viewpoint.’

“It’s kind of funny that we say, ‘Well, you don’t have much of a voice now, but you’ll have a voice later on,’” Maksl said. “But by silencing students, we inhibit their ability to develop a voice. And what happens is that students, young people, they become so deferential to authority that they never ask any questions. They never challenge things. Even when they see something that’s wrong.”

Skeggs attends St. Francis Borgia School, a Catholic private school, and is not able to challenge the school’s censorship based on state law. Private institutions are therefore not subject to the limitations of the First Amendment.

Skeggs will never get to write the controversial story she has dreamed about, but she has learned to accept that.

“A lot of people think it’s like a daily struggle for us,” Skeggs said. “It’s not, because we learn to work with it. We learn that we just can’t do some stories and we’ve accepted it. So we really just sometimes don’t even go near them. We just write what we can. It’s not that big of a struggle for us because we know what we can and can’t do.”