Censorship in School Publications

According to the Seattle Times, Shorewood High School in Shoreline, Washington recently shredded remaining copies of the student literary magazine and reprinted it minus a poem with an offensive expletive in the title. A 35-year veteran teacher of the district, Steve Kelly, was asked to step down as the magazine’s advisor.

Here is the poem, as reprinted by the Times:

My first (expletive) sure he claims he loves me
and holds me oh so tight
he makes me believe this is special
that he can hold on all night
he claims he isn’t pressuring me
but his hand is down my pants
temptation rises and I give in
he turns over
checks the time
gets up and drives me home
no kiss goodnight
no I love you
and no telephone call

— Zoya Raskina

In the 1988, the Supreme Court decided one of the most important cases involving student publications. Hazelwood High School’s newspaper, Spectrum, printed printed some articles about teenage pregnancy, including personal experiences of Hazelwood High School students. The administration decided to censor the articles, and the students fought the decision, as the expression goes, all the way to the Supreme Court. The Court decided in favor of the district:

In a 5-3 decision, the majority of the Court found that the students’ First Amendment rights had not been violated. The Court decided that Spectrum was part of the school curriculum and school administrators could control its content. The newspaper was not a “public forum” and school officials could impose “reasonable restrictions.”

Depending on your point of view, this decision may have overturned part of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District, which asserted that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” According to David B. Rubin, an attorney who specializes in school law:

[O]ne of the main criteria in dealing with school censorship cases relates to what is called the “Tinker disruption standard,” that the Court outlined in the case’s ruling.”Students do have First Amendment rights to express themselves as long as it doesn’t interfere with the order of the school day,” Rubin explained. “The question is, does the student expression cause disruption in the school,” he stated. “Censorship issues depend on what is being said or expressed to whom, and in what context.”

Rubin noted that what is called the “forum issue” is the second criteria in deciding school censorship cases, namely whether student expression is part of a school function regulated by the school district, or whether it is entirely initiated by students.

“If it’s a school-sponsored function or forum, then school authorities have the right to set their own standards,” Rubin said. “The school districts have a certain leeway as to how vigorously they exercise their legal powers.”

Rubin clarified that schools must have “legitimate pedagogical [educational] concerns” when dealing with censorship issues.

Personally, I don’t see that the school crossed any lines. They exercised their right, according to the Supreme Court, to impose “reasonable restrictions” upon the content of the magazine. To be honest, were I the advisor of that magazine, I probably would not approve a student work containing that sort of profanity — and I think it is fairly clear what the “expletive deleted” was. I know many students and possibly teachers believe that is a violation of First Amendment Rights, but I don’t agree. By excising the poem, the school is not prohibiting the student from publishing her work elsewhere. And frankly, deciding what to publish is a right exercised by every publishing company in America — yet no one complains about not being given a voice if their work is denied publication by one house. They simply submit the work to another house.

I believe students should have access to reading material without censorship. I don’t agree with preventing access to works of literature. However, I also don’t think the school is necessarily required to provide students an outlet for their work, especially if it might be considered offensive. In my opinion, the school district needs to consistently enforce its own rules about censorship, which the article implies it has not done, and the magazine advisor should have used, well, a little bit of common sense. Technically, he didn’t lose his job, and there are schools in America that would have fired him for this — teachers have lost their jobs over similar issues. Cissy Lacks, a 25-year veteran teacher was fired from the Ferguson Florissant School District in Missouri for allowing students to use expletives in dialogue written for drama exercises. She was ordered reinstated by a jury, but her school district appealed, and her reinstatement was overturned. The Supreme Court refused to hear her case. Considering the precedent the Cissy Lacks case established, Steve Kelly is fortunate.

Sources: Objectionable Content vs. Freedom of Expression: Battles of School Censorship and FileRoom.org — Cissy Lacks, high school teacher

4 thoughts on “Censorship in School Publications”

  1. I really love this article! I am doing a debate on this issue and I am for having the teachers and administraters look over school newspaper and other stuff that is going to be published. You really gave a lot of information to me that will wined up helping me in the debate. Thank you so much for you article!!

  2. I am glad I found this, im doing an article for my school newspaper on Controversial topics and why they are not allowed in schools, particuly my school district. oddly though your against my argument.

  3. I tried to present a speech in one of my classes about legalization of marijuana, but when the principal allowed it, my teacher did not. I believe that that was completely a personal act of the teacher who plain didn't want to hear that side of the issue.

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