Hazelwood V. Kuhlmeier: The Hindering of Young Journalists

Updated on January 3, 2018

Censorship in School Systems

Students in school systems across the United States frequently face censorship and suppression, whether it is from school officials or their fellow peers. Students have limited opportunities when it comes to voicing their opinions and stances on issues. Options range from staging a walk-out from classes (which is typically shut down quickly) or writing their thoughts in a school newspaper. Many high schools do not even offer a student-run newspaper, thus discouraging students to speak out. As a current senior in high school, a newspaper is nonexistent at my school. I am unable to project my voice unless I am willing to take the consequence of being suspended or judged. This goes to show that students need to have access to a way to educate their fellow students and assert themselves on issues that take place where they learn and in the world around them.

Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier

Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier is a prime example of a case where students’ opinions were silenced by authority figures. The case involved three journalism students who attended Hazelwood East High School in St. Louis, Missouri. Cathy Kuhlmeier, along with two of her fellow peers, worked for the school newspaper called The Spectrum. As part of their duties, they interviewed students across the school for their stories and overall opinions on different topics. Through this research, they wrote two particular articles, one revolving around the struggles of a teenage pregnancy and another on a family divorce. In the final publication, names were altered so the students’ identities were protected.

The principal of the time, Robert Reynolds, then reviewed the articles and felt the topics were too inappropriate. As a result, he prohibited the articles and restricted the entire pages the articles were on from being published. The students were infuriated and did not understand how their material was offensive. This is when Kuhlmeier and her two peers brought the issue to court against the Hazelwood School District.

The Court Process

The first court the case was brought to was the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri. During this ruling, the court supported Hazelwood and believed that the principal’s actions were not a violation of the First Amendment rights. In order to win the case, Kuhlmeier appealed, which then sent the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. In this ruling, the final decision swapped and was in favor of Kuhlmeier. Ultimately, Hazelwood appealed, and the Supreme Court took on the problematic case.

The majority ruling was led Justice White, along with Chief Justice Rehnquist, Justice O’Connor and Justice Scalia. They all believed that principal Reynolds had not violated the First Amendment and had the right to remove the articles from the school newspaper. The dissenting opinion was orchestrated by Justice Brennan, who was joined by Justices Marshall and Blackmun. They argued for the fact that the students have their own individual rights, and since the students omitted the named in their articles, the topics were not inappropriate.

Final Thoughts

Unfortunately, the dissenting opinion did not matter since the Supreme court vote was 5 – 3 in favor of Hazelwood School District. Three students were unable to publish beneficial information for the student body in their own newspaper. The principal had to interfere and take away the students’ access to free speech. Even though this case did take place in 1988, this is still a common occurrence in schools. Oppression is found throughout classrooms in all different forms. In this case, voices were completely shut down just because one person felt the information was offensive.

Your Thoughts

Do you believe that Cathy Kuhlmeier's First Amendment rights were violated?

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The articles/websites I referenced are found throughout the article as well as here.

"Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier." Oyez, 16 Nov. 2017, www.oyez.org/cases/1987/86-836.

“Facts and Case Summary - Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier.” United States Courts, Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, www.uscourts.gov/educational-resources/educational-activities/facts-and-case-summary-hazelwood-v-kuhlmeier.


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