Commentary

New Voices Fight to Restore Student Free Speech

In 1988, the United States Supreme Court restricted the free speech rights of students in the landmark case Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier. The Hazelwood standard — which gives school administrators broad discretion to censor student speech — replaced a standard adopted by the Supreme Court in Tinker v. Des Moines, the 1969 case that famously pronounced: “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

On March 10, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a North Dakota Democrat, took to the floor of the Senate to decry the impact of Hazelwood on America’s high school students.

“Students report regularly that they’ve been prevented from discussing matters of public importance in the pages of student media, or perhaps worse, they’ve restrained themselves from even attempting to address an issue of political or social concern for fear of adverse consequences,” she said. “That is not an environment that values and empowers student voices and it’s not a climate that is conducive to effective and learning civic participation. … The ability to express yourself, the ability to be part of a community where we have open ideas is absolutely instrumental and critical to the future of our country.”

Heitkamp concluded her speech with a promotion of the John Wall New Voices of North Dakota Act. The 2015 legislation codified the pre-Hazelwood Tinker standard to restore and protect the free speech rights of students in schools and universities throughout the state of North Dakota.

Heitkamp encouraged her fellow senators “to examine what happens at home with students’ First Amendment rights, to provide leadership to promote those rights in their states, and to potentially look at how we can reverse the Hazelwood decision so that we can grow a more confident, a more educated and a more diverse population for our future.”

Last fall, the Student Press Law Center (SPLC) launched New Voices USA, a project that acts as a clearinghouse for the promotion of model legislation to restore and protect the First Amendment rights of students in schools and universities. The group’s website (newvoicesus.com) features harrowing stories of student censorship, students lobbying at state legislatures and news of legislative victories. New Voices USA has active campaigns in 19 states and has already had impressive results in moving bills through a number of state legislatures.

According to SPLC’s Executive Director Frank LoMonte, the anti-free speech movement currently plaguing college campuses — which has resulted in several student newspapers being defunded for publishing unpopular ideas — can be directly traced to the impact of the Supreme Court’s decision in Hazelwood.

“What I’m hearing at the college level is that students are arriving in a damaged state,” LoMonte told professor Daniel Reimold in an article published on the Poynter Institute’s website. “They have been trained to believe that publishing material that upsets people is a bad thing. They have been trained if you ask too many tough, embarrassing questions of your institution that your story can be killed and you might personally be punished.”

David Cuillier, director of the journalism program at the University of Arizona, said that he has seen freshmen matriculating from high school without a basic understanding of the First Amendment or the value of free speech in civil society. The problem was so severe that his department was forced to create a Principles of Journalism class as a requirement for all incoming freshmen.

“Our schools have educated a generation of sheep who come into college believing the government can tell them what to do, what to think and what they can say or not say,” Cuillier said, squarely laying the blame on the climate of censorship created by the Hazelwood decision.

In his dissent to the majority opinion in Hazelwood, Justice William Brennan speculated that the rationale offered by the court for official censorship of student expression would empower administrators “to teach students that the press ought never report bad news, express unpopular views, or print a thought that might upset its sponsors.”

Which is exactly what has happened, and will continue to happen, until citizens stand up and support the passage in their home state of a New Voices Act to restore and protect free speech in our nation’s schools and universities.

Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights. He is a member of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the Cato Institute, where he is a senior fellow. Nick Hentoff is a criminal defense and civil liberties attorney in New York City.