Censorship: Providing Security or Stifling Creativity?

Shefali Kumar and Mehk Sethi

The First Amendment guarantees our freedoms concerning religion, expression, assembly, and the right to petition. Yet when the right to freedom of expression is exercised and conflicts with the rights of others or the safety of the nation, legislators must determine where to draw the line and enact censorship policies. It didn’t take very long for Congress to provide a safety net for the First Amendment by passing the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, which criminalized the publishing of any false statements or criticisms of the federal government. Since then, censorship has been an issue of great contention in the print media, news outlets, and even in schools.

In the 1988 Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier case, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of censorship in schools as long as the motivation is “reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.” This case reversed the decision of the Tinker v. Des Moines Supreme Court Case of 1969. The result is that the original voices of thousands of students who wish to express themselves creatively or impartially through their school newspapers has been compromised.

Recently, there have been cases of high school newspaper advisers being removed from their positions for publishing certain content with which the administration did not agree. At Northern Highlands Regional High School in Allendale, New Jersey in 2014 the principal vetoed the publication of a news article that did not portray the superintendent in a positive light, because it focused too much on sensitive personnel issues. Later, the principal claimed the article was objectionable because it was too biased and relied on confidential sources. Three months after this article was censored, it was allowed to be published. However, soon after, the school board enforced more rigid policies that limited the use of anonymous sources and the students’ right to appeal school censorship decisions. After this experience, the adviser, John Wodnick, resigned.

After other instances of high school newspaper advisers losing their jobs for protecting students’ First Amendment rights, New Jersey Assemblywoman Donna Simon introduced a “New Voices of New Jersey” bill on December 14, 2015. This bill would not only allow students to report without restraint, but would also protect advisers from any retaliation. Because of this, it has been referred to as the “anti-Hazelwood law, taking things back to the Tinker standard.”

The future of the bill is unclear as Simon, the only sponsor or co-sponsor listed, lost reelection and left the state legislature in January of 2016. If the bill is to be passed, it will have to be revived in the next session, which began on January 12, 2016. Currently, however, proponents of the bill continue to look to various forms of media for support and exposure, such as the Star-Ledger. New Voices of New Jersey’s co-organizer Tom McHale, former high school newspaper adviser John Tagliareni, and other organizers of the bill will reach out to student organizations like the Garden State Journalism Association Student Center.

Mrs. Malandrino, who teaches TV Production at Morris Hills, has to deal with school censorship in class in deciding what to air on the morning announcements. Mrs. Malandrino stated, “Personally, I am not in favor of censorship. But as an adviser, it is important to make sure that productions that are aired or published are appropriate and do not contain anything that could harm anyone.” Usually at school, censorship is not a matter of students wanting to display radical ideas, but more a matter of appropriateness. In the end, it falls into the adviser’s hands to be the gatekeeper, though the administrators have the final say.

Mr. Melvin, one of the vice principals at Morris Hills, is responsible for approving everything that is published or displayed in club publications. Then asked about the topic, he said, “The purpose of a school newspaper is for students to explore their journalistic interests and report on school news while staying consistent with the morals and values of the school district.” He explained that “the school serves ‘en loco parentis,’ so it is the responsibility of the administration to uphold the values students have outside of and within the school. This requires some discretionary action to limit anything that could be chaotic and negatively affect the day-to-day operations of the school, which is supported by the Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier bill.” Personally, Mr. Melvin said he believes that “when there is potential for someone to be offended, it is my job to stop it from being published. While I don’t want to stifle people’s creativity, censorship has to be treated differently in public schools than in the real world because public schools operate on the taxpayers’ money and have to take into account everybody’s norm.”

Senior class president and Hilltopper contributor Isabella Grella’s work was subject to the gatekeeping process. Her article about the dress code could not be published in its original form. Nonetheless, Grella said that she thinks “censorship is necessary in a high school setting to an extent. But if the content being censored is not harming anybody or anything but simply expressing both sides of an issue, it is unnecessary and should be allowed.” She further qualified this statement by saying, “If the content does not fairly cover both sides, however, I see why censorship is necessary for safety. However, in a learning environment, too much censorship can hinder the learning of students and opportunity for growth of thought and opinion necessary for success in the real world.”

Does censorship of school publications violate our founding principles of freedom of expression? Many opponents of censorship claim that it stifles creative freedom among students and prevents them from using media to voice their opinions. For decades, the issue of extending First Amendment rights to public schools has been debated between students and schools and continues to be today with the advocates of the “New Voices of New Jersey” bill.