In the past three terms, the U.S. Supreme Court has told us again and again that the government may never punish people for the content of their speech. As interpreted by the Roberts Court, the Constitution protects even speech that is highly disturbing (videos of dogfights), that has detrimental effects on some audience members (ultraviolent video games), that is brazenly false (lying about having won military honors) or that is grossly offensive to basic human decency (anti-gay hate banners outside military funerals).
This First Amendment absolutism "Congress shall make no law" truly means "no law" only makes it more anomalous that millions of Americans are still denied a seat at the grown-up table of citizenship: students in public schools and colleges. Twenty-five years ago, the Supreme Court decided Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, a case that stripped away constitutional protection for students who use a "curricular" means of communication (in that case, a high school newspaper).
A generation's worth of legalized censorship has damaged the learning environment in schools, discouraged young people from meaningfully engaging in civic life and obstructed the public's access to truthful information. As the director of the University of Arizona's journalism program told a recent law-school symposium reflecting on the legacy of Hazelwood, "We are raising a nation of sheep. I don't think it's extreme to say that we risk democracy."
Because of Hazelwood, a Tennessee high school was emboldened to prohibit an 18-year-old newspaper editor from publishing a column pleading for her fundamentalist Christian community to show tolerance for nonbelievers. A Virginia high school confiscated its student newspaper and removed the adviser for a column documenting the inadequacies of the school's handicapped-inaccessible facilities. An Indiana high school forbade a student from publishing a story bringing to light pervasive hazing among track-and-field athletes. And the list goes on.
When "Thank God for Dead Soldiers" and "Grand Theft Auto IV" are constitutionally protected speech, but an editorial exposing unsafe conditions at a public school is not, something has gone terribly, terribly wrong.
Hazelwood undermined the sensible balance struck by the court in its landmark 1969 ruling, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District. The court held that while students' ability to express themselves must be circumscribed in light of "the special characteristics of the school environment" nothing less than a "material and substantial" disturbance could justify censoring speech.
Hazelwood replaced Tinker's robust protection with something akin to reasonableness censorship may be justified if it is "reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns" a standard that in practice has been insurmountable even for students with the most compelling claims. In what civilized people must hope represents Hazelwood's low-water mark, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit decided in a 2011 ruling, Doe v. Silsbee Independent School Distric t , that a Texas high school cheerleader had no right to quietly sit out a cheering routine that required her to recite the name of the basketball player who raped her. Because of Hazelwood, the court held, the victim was not a human being, but merely a "mouthpiece" for her school's message.
Perhaps seeing an opportunity to purge their dockets of disputes they consider trivial, lower courts have expanded the Hazelwood doctrine beyond any sensible stopping point. While Hazelwood began as a case about the use of a government-provided "forum" in front of a captive audience of children, it increasingly is becoming the standard that governs all speech by all students at all times.
Retaliation against college students even middle-aged graduate students who complain about the curriculum is being reviewed under extra-strength Hazelwood deference even when the student speaks in private with a faculty member, not using government property or addressing a student audience at all.
In 2012, the Sixth Circuit joined three others in expressly adopting Hazelwood as the standard governing administrators' censorship authority at the college and even professional-school level. In that ruling, Ward v. Polite, the court decided that the minimal Hazelwood level of protection applied to the complaints of a 31-year-old Michigan graduate student, because they "arose within the curricular context." Using this reasoning, courts have distorted Hazelwood from a doctrine about control over the use of government property into a doctrine about control over people.
More noxious than any single misapplication of Hazelwood is the mentality that it has fostered in schools that students have no opinions about school policies worth hearing; that unpopular minority viewpoints are too "offensive" to be heard; that controversy over divisive issues is to be feared and minimized; and that in any disagreement with its citizens, the government always wins. There is no surer preparation for a lifetime of "civic dis-engagement."