by Matthew Pertz, Opinion Editor
This week, six Kansas journalists made national headlines when they forced the resignation of Pittsburg High School’s new principal Amy Robertson after they found discrepancies in her record. Robertson, who stepped down after less than a month in her job, said she earned her master’s and doctorate degrees at Corlinns University, a now-defunct school. She later was unable to produce her transcripts from Tulane University, where she claimed to have earned her undergraduate degree.
Those six reporters are particularly notable because they are also students at said high school. Their collective integrity and courage has been commended by journalists nationwide. Unfortunately, scholastic journalism of this degree is a rare sight thanks to the censoring power of public schools due to the Supreme Court’s ruling in the 1988 care Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier. Students in Hazelwood East High School in Hazelwood, Mo., wrote several controversial articles for their school-sponsored newspaper. The articles in question covered the effects of divorce on students and teenage pregnancy, topics deemed too mature by the school’s principal, who unilaterally removed the pages of the paper which contained the questionable piece. The students argued a public school couldn’t censor these articles because the school as a government institution would breach the First Amendment.
The prior precedent for school censorship came from the 1969 Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines, in which the court declared, “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” But in the case of Hazelwood barely 18 years later, the court ruled that schools could redact any school-sponsored publications as long as the administration had “legitimate pedagogical concerns” with the content. Principals immediately took advantage of these new freedoms, with one principal in California censoring an article on HIV in his school’s paper the morning after the ruling.
This resolution began a decades-long trend away from student press rights. A 1989 Supreme Court ruling reinforced the Hazelwood standard and a 2005 ruling from the U.S. Seventh District found public colleges also fall under the precedent. Several states have enacted statutes to counter the Hazelwood judgement, including Kansas, which provides protection for high school writers like those at Pittsburg High. On the other hand, Kentucky and 20 other states offer no immunity from heavy-handed administrations.
The effects of this culture are playing out in the present tense as the Kentucky Kernel battles its parent university over sexual assault records in regards to an accused professor. The newspaper, citing open records laws, claims it should have access to the records, while the University of Kentucky, citing the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA),
FERPA itself is a well-intentioned piece of legislation with dangerous consequences. Signed by President Ford in 1974, the law was written to give students complete control over their personal information. In the decades since its passing, colleges have manipulated this law countless times, with each transgression hurting students more and more. While UK is trying to prevent the release of documents, the University of Oregon in 2015 retrieved a student’s counseling records and released them to an attorney defending the school from said student’s sexual assault lawsuit.
These regulations and rulings combine to create a hazardous training ground for student journalists. Young reporters often fear institutional censorship and tamp down their own work out of self-preservation, which later translates into professional journalists who won’t write hard-hitting pieces because of their learned fear of authority. According to the Code of Ethics published by the Society of Professional Journalists, reporters are ethically obligated to “Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable,” but today’s scholastic media landscape hampers this rule. Journalists are unable to practice their profession without the full protection of the First Amendment from censorship of any kind, including that from academic bodies.
Thanks to six high schoolers in Kansas, we have a clearer picture of what academic reporting looks like away from Hazelwood’s harmful reach. For the sake of the free press, student journalists should be free from censorship and restrictions just like their adult counterparts.