Rulings in cases on student newspapers threaten free press

Posted on 02 Mar 2006 at 8:22pm
By Libby Post – Lesbian Notions

Supreme Court’s decision in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier set the stage for high school, college papers to censor content on GLBT issues

Freedom of the press. It’s something most of us take for granted.
Sure, there are always some right-wingers complaining about the “liberal press.” But their complaints are counter-balanced by those on the left who see today’s mainstream media as dictated by political and corporate interests
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But unless you view the media with a critical eye, which most of us really don’t, you probably consider freedom of the press as a given in our democracy. It is, after all, guaranteed in the First Amendment of our country’s Constitution.

I’ve come to expect my local daily paper to provide balanced reporting about the LGBT community believe me, they hear from me and other members of my community if they don’t.

I’ve also come to expect a free flow of information about the community from the myriad LGBT media sources available, from print publications to the Web to radio and TV.

In fact, if your cable operator is sophisticated enough to understand the power of the LGBT market, you may even get Logo, the gay cable network that has a news-gathering operation powered by CBS News.

However, for many queer youth, freedom of the press stops at the entrance to their high school. More and more, we’re seeing high school principals and school boards clamping down on what student newspapers can publish.

In September 2005, Illinois student Stephen Delaney wrote a column entitled “The Importance of Coming Out” for his Wheaton-Warrenville South High School newspaper, The Pride. The piece was Delaney’s personal coming-out story. He wrote about how surprised he was by his conservative town’s acceptance of his sexual orientation.

When the school’s principal, Dawn Snyder, caught wind of its imminent publication, she required that certain changes be made. She wanted the lead paragraph changed to “soften the blow” of Delaney’s announcement, and wanted mention of the upcoming 2005 National Coming Out Day deleted.
Even after the changes were made, Snyder still wasn’t happy and said the article couldn’t run. She wanted a neutral article about homosexuality instead.

Delaney told the Student Press Legal Center, “That wasn’t something I wanted to do. I didn’t want to make it a historical article or give the cons of [being gay].”

Fortunately, the local newspaper, The Daily Herald, heard about the controversy. On Nov. 23, they ran a story entitled “A Call to Come Out Quashed,” and published Delaney’s column as well. He said he’s heard nothing but positive feedback.

Snyder’s censorship isn’t uncommon. Ever since the United States Supreme Court handed high school principals and schools boards the ability to stop the presses in the 1988 Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier decision, similar situations have arisen at high schools in Florida, California, Pennsylvania, Texas and Arkansas.

In the ruling, the court said school administrators at Hazelwood High in suburban St. Louis had the right to censor stories concerning teen pregnancy and the effects of divorce on children. Now, high school administrators and school boards use the Hazelwood decision to censor stories on LGBT issues in school newspapers.

This February, the Supreme Court handed down yet another blow to freedom of the press. But this time it was on college campuses.

The court refused to hear a case questioning the authority of an Illinois public university administration to censor a student newspaper. The paper in question was critical of the administration not publishing stories on LGBT issues.

By rejecting the case, the Supreme Court upheld the previous decision by the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit that conferred the restrictions of Hazelwood to college administrators at public colleges and universities, allowing them to censor their student newspapers.

Thankfully, the Seventh Circuit’s decision is only binding in three states Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin. However, it does open the door for other college administrators to test the waters.

While the circuit court’s decision only applies to three states, it also only applies to public schools. Believe it or not, private school administrators already had the privilege to censor. Because private colleges and universities are not government agencies, they are not limited by the First Amendment in their ability to censor.

It wouldn’t surprise me if we began to see more censorship at colleges that consider themselves to be conservative or Christian. After all, the LGBT community is still a hot-button issue, and censoring the written word about us plays into the radical evangelical agenda of denying us our rights and keeping us as second-class citizens. Remember, it was the Roberts Supreme Court, with Sam Alito on board, that decided not to hear the case.

These are the folks who believe that freedom of the press, of religion, of any right we hold dear is just another word for nothing left to lose.
Libby Post is a political commentator on public radio, on the Web and in print.
E-mail LesbianNotions@qsyndicate.com.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, March 3, 2006.

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