News Seattle Times Needs to Go Back to High School
posted by March 25 at 11:05 AMon
In an editorial titled “Free Speech, In and Out of School,” published this morning in the The Seattle Times, the editorial board urges the US Supreme Court to protect free speech for students. Or so it seems at first.
Weighing in on a case that’s currently before the U.S. Supreme Court involving a student from Alaska who got in trouble for holding a provocative banner across the street from his high school (the banner read “Bong Hits 4 Jesus”), the Seattle Times writes: “The courts should not overturn Tinker [a 1969 SCOTUS case that guaranteed students’ First Amendment rights.]”
Unfortunately, the Seattle Times doesn’t seem to understand the meaning of Tinker.
They correctly argue that the student was standing across the street from the school, so the state has no right to qaush his right to free speech. But they add that if the student had been on school grounds it would be a different story. They write:
The student was in a public setting — across the street from the school but not on its grounds — and should have been free to exercise free speech… The court should not overturn Tinker. But there are limits to free speech, particularly inside a school. School administrators, for example, can regulate speech on campus or at a school-sponsored event if it is vulgar, disruptive or interferes with education. An administrator of any school, public or private, needs that authority.
The Seattle Times needs to go back to high school. By drawing a distinction between off-school grounds and on-school grounds, they completely miss the point of Tinker, the standard they claim to support.
In Tinker the SC famously wrote:
It can hardly be argued that…students…shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech..at the schoolhouse gate. Students in school as well as out of school are ‘Persons’ under our Constitution. They are possessed of fundamental rights which the State must respect, just as they themselves must respect their obligations to the State. In our system, students may not be regarded as closed-circuit recipients of only that which the State chooses to communicate. They may not be confined to the expression of those sentiments that are officially approved.
So, by drawing a distinction between on and off-school grounds, The Seattle Times is in fact coming out against Tinker. Indeed, The Seattle Times uses today’s editorial to come out against Rep. Dave Upthegrove’s bill, currently moving through the state legislature in Olympia. Upthegrove’s bill aims to reinstate the Tinker Standard.
What The Seattle Times doesn’t seem to know (or chooses to ignore?) is that Tinker was overturned in 1988 in the Hazelwood decision —which held that adminstrators could censor speech for purely educational (subjective) reasons.
Luckily, states are allowed to be more liberal than the Feds when it comes to protecting rights. There’s currenlty a move in state legislatures all over the country to reinstate Tinker—which makes censorship, particularly of student papers, a more difficult task for school administrators. Under the Tinker standard, administrators would have to show that the speech in question actually disrupts the school day. This is parallel to citizens’ rights to speech in the real world—where speech is broad, but certainly limited: You cannot yell “Fire!” in a crowded movie house. Rep. Upthegrove’s bill is part of this effort.
What everyone misses in this debate on student speech in newspapers (where students should have the same rights as journalists in the real world) is this: There is a check on students akin to the check on professional reporters in the real world: The faculty advisor acts as an editor, checking for the things that real editors check for, like libel. More important, journalism teachers give out grades. Like an editor in the real world who has authority over a reporter, the teacher’s power to hand out Cs, Ds, and Fs deters students from publishing irresponsible journalism.
However, if the teacher is like an editor-in-chief, the principal is like the state. If the article makes it past the teacher it shouldn’t get shut down by the state. This is a valuable civics lesson for student journalists who one day will be acting as journalists in the real world, holding the state accountable. They should not be taught the undemocratic lesson that the state has the final say.