Student Press Freedom Day: Know your rights

February 23, 2023

To celebrate Student Press Freedom Day today, beginning journalists in Writing for Publications researched a key case that influences press law and student free speech. Read a little of what our staff writers learn on Press Law Wednesdays in the classroom, and learn more about First Amendment rights.

1964: New York Times vs. Sullivan

The Supreme Court wrote that statements made in relation to a public official plaintiff have to be false and written with “‘actual malice’—that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.”

— William Brennan

In 1960, The New York Times published an advertisement supporting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and denouncing local officials for the oppression of Black citizens. The advertisement, named “Heed their Rising Voices,” stated: “Again and again the Southern violators have answered Dr. King’s peaceful protests with intimida-tion and violence.”

By “Southern violators,” they are referring to Southern politicians.

The advertisement contained several inaccuracies, so a Montgomery public safety commissioner sued The New York Times for defamation, as well as a group of Black ministers mentioned in the ad.

A jury trial ruled in favor of the commissioner, and the Supreme Court of Alabama upheld this decision, writing that “[t]he First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution does not protect libelous publications.”

The Times appealed and when the Supreme Court reviewed the case, they ruled 9-0 in favor of the New York Times.

The Supreme Court wrote that statements made in relation to a public official plaintiff have to be false and written with “‘actual malice’—that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.”

Even though there were minor inaccuracies in The New York Times advertisement, the commissioner could not prove that these statements were made recklessly or knowing that they were false.

What this means for free speech: Just because an article was interpreted in a certain way (maliciously), that does not mean that author intended it to be understood that way.

1969: Tinker vs. Des Moines

Five students in the Des Moines ISD wore black armbands to school on Dec. 16, 1965 to protest the Vietnam War. They were suspended and administration said they could not come back to school until they agreed to return without the armbands. While they shed the armbands, their protest continued: they group wore black clothing for the remainder of the school year. They also filed a lawsuit, stating that the school had violated their First Amendment rights. The three plaintiffs in the case: Mary Beth Tinker, her brother John, and a friend Chris Eckhardt — were represented by the ACLU. What came next was a four-year court battle, that ended with the Supreme Court siding with the students.

What this means for free speech: US Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortnas wrote that “Students do not check their First Amendment Rights at the school house gate.” Which means that students have the right to free speech and a free student press. They have a right to petition administration (or any other governing body) to change policies they don’t like. They have the right to assemble and discuss issues inside and outside of classroom settings. They have the right to protest, including but not limited to on campus rallies and walk outs.


1986: Bethel vs Fraser

In 1983, Matthew N. Fraser made a speech addressing the student body of Bethel High School, Washington. The speech was made at a voluntary assembly held during school hours as part of a school-sponsored educational program in self-government. Approximately 600 students attended, most of whom were 14-year-olds. Before delivering the speech, the student discussed it with several teachers, and two said he should not give it; however, he still did it anyway.

Fraser’s speech contained many sexual innuendos and graphic metaphors, including the quote, “he’s firm in his pants–he’s firm in his shirt.” The school administration later suspended Fraser after his speech, saying it was a violation of the school’s “disruptive conduct rule.”

Feeling like his First Amendment rights were violated, Fraser sued in court.

The district court sided with Fraser, but the school decided to appeal and take the case to the Supreme Court. In the trial, Fraser referenced Tinker vs. Des Moines, arguing that the school could not restrict his freedom of speech unless substantial disruption was caused. The school countered with the argument that they had a duty to protect younger students from explicit content.

Eventually, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the school, agreeing that the school could correctly predict that Fraser’s speech would be disruptive and boundaries should be put in place regarding inappropriate content.

What this means for free speech: student speech doesn’t come without consequence, and schools have the right to prohibit speech that may be explicit or harassing.

1988: Hazelwood School District vs. Kuhlmeier

Student journalists at Hazelwood East High School in St. Louis, Missouri wrote stories on their peers’ experiences with divorce and teen pregnancy as part of their journalism class. Without warning, the principal censored the stories, removing them from the school newspaper as it was heading to the printer. The principal reasoned that, although the pregnant students’ names weren’t used, readers might be able to identify them. Additionally, the students had not given the divorcees mentioned in the story a chance to respond to what others had said about them.

The students, including Cathy Kuhlemeier, sued the school for violating their First Amendment rights. The case made its way to the Supreme Court, where the school won in a 5-3 ruling.

The Supreme Court reasoned that schools have the right to censor school-sponsored newspaper content to set high standards for journalistic practices and prevent content “inconsistent with the shared values of a civilized social order” from being published if the content posed “legitimate pedagogical concerns.” They concluded that the principals’ censorship adhered to these conditions, as the content of the story could significantly affect the students and parents mentioned in the reporting.

What this means for free speech: Hazelwood was a significant step backward in the balance between student rights and administrative control. Today, a number of states have enacted New Voices legislation to make schools more welcoming places for student voice.

1997: Yeo v. Town of Lexington

Yeo vs. Town of Lexington (1997) involves two public high school publications: the newspaper and the yearbook. The debate involving both of the publications revolved around whether or not they should publish an advertisement. The advertisement promoted sexual abstinence, which means to avoid all types of sexual relations with others.

Douglas Yeo was a parent of a student in that high school. Previously Yeo had campaigned against condom distribution in the public setting and had lost. Douglas Yeo placed the advertisement with the paper, but the student press didn’t want to run it.

The case was mainly about the school publications not wanting to publish the advertisement that promoted sexual abstinence.

The final decision was based on the court’s findings that publishing an advertisement should be left up to the students. The court refused Yeo’s claim that the actions of the student editors were the fault of the school district and his argument that schools have a responsibility to override the decisions of student editors.

What this means for free speech: while advertisements in a publication are paid for, the student press can still edit content or refuse to publish ads that are placed.

2002: Dean VS. Utica

In 2002 Joanne and Rey Francis filed a lawsuit against the Utica Community School District. They claimed that a school district-owned bus garage produced unwanted fumes and noises in the surrounding areas. bus garage neighbor Rey Francis developed lung cancer two years prior due to the diesel exhaust fumes.

Arrow staff members Katherine Dean and Dan Butts sued the school district for not allowing them to write an article about the issue.

After a back and forth, the court found that the Utica Community School District was “indefensible”, meaning that the school couldn’t block or pick and choose what the school newspaper wrote and published. The article met the standards of reporting in a limited public forum and didn’t break any of the publication policies.

What this means for free speech: The case helped many other student journalists, limiting the impact of Hazelwood by banning administrators from blocking articles because the coverage might paint the school in a negative light or because they didn’t agree with them.

2002: Draught v. Wooster

In 2002, the student newspaper of Wooster High School, The Blade, was censored because an article was deemed defamatory. The article was written about the inconsistent enforcement of the school’s alcohol policy, and the preferential treatment of student-athletes caught drinking.

The students sued the school for restricting their First Amendment rights, not allowing them the freedom of press and speech to quote a student who went on record about drinking at the party and receiving no consequence from the school.

Judge James Gwin had to decide if The Blade was a public or private forum before he could make a judgment. According to the ruling in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, school administrators might significantly restrict students’ First Amendment rights by censoring non-public forum student publications. However, administrators at the school had to offer considerably stronger justifications for suppressing student newspapers that were published in public or in limited public forums.

In the end, the judge decided that The Blade was a limited student forum and ruled in favor of Wooster. Their censorship was justified because the administrators had a logical reason for considering that the article was defamatory. However, this case ensured that school administrators could not use the Hazelwood case to censor whatever they wanted.

What this means for free speech: In this case, the journalists did not follow up with the administration to verify that the student who admitted to drinking had reported the incident and did not receive a consequence. The case emphasizes the importance of fact checking, and not relying on a single interview to tell a whole story.

2005: Garcetti v. Ceballos

On October 12, 2005, Gil Garcetti and Richard Ceballos went to court. Ceballos was working at the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office at the time when he got word that “a sheriff misrepresented facts in a search warrant affidavit,” as said by Oyez. Ceballos notified people working on the case, and they brushed him off, leaving the case to go to court. The defense then had Ceballos testify. He got much backlash from his coworkers for testifying, and he argued that he was just exercising his First Amendment rights.

Garcetti won in a 5-4 ruling. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote a statement saying that statements public employees make as part of their official duties are not protected under the First Amendment; thus, it does not protect employees who make them from disciplinary actions.

statements public employees make as part of their official duties are not protected under the First Amendment

— Justice Anthony Kennedy

This means that if a government employee were to speak as a private citizen, that speech would be protected; however, since Ceballos was doing it as part of his duties, his employers were justified in taking action against him.

Justice Kennedy wrote, “The fact that his duties sometimes required him to speak or write does not mean his supervisors were prohibited from evaluating his performance.”

What this means for free speech: Teachers and publication advisers, who work for the school, may be limited in how much they can speak about certain topics, like censorship. However, students, who are not employees of the school, have the right to speak out and protest.

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