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Censored in 1983, Cathy Kuhlmeier is still fighting for student free speech

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Courtesy of St. Louis Post-Dispatch
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Censorship at Hazelwood East High School was covered in the Aug. 21, 1983, edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which quoted then-student Cathy Kuhlmeier: "We just got disgusted with the whole thing and we decided to stand up for our rights."

Nearly 35 years have passed since the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling, on Jan. 13, 1988, that Hazelwood East High School had the right to censor its student newspaper. The landmark decision set a precedent that’s allowed administrators at other high schools and colleges to restrict students’ free speech. Decades later, the decision still rankles Cathy Kuhlmeier.

In 1983, Kuhlmeier was an editor at the Hazelwood East newspaper, The Spectrum. At the time, she told St. Louis on the Air, the editors “wanted to do more in-depth stories than what the typical, fluffy type stories that ran” covering the school’s football team or prom season.

Instead, the subjects for the planned issue would be serious, relevant journalism for the school’s roughly 2,500 students: teen pregnancies, divorce and runaways.

“All of the names had been changed, because we wanted to protect their identities,” Kuhlmeier recalled. She and her fellow student journalists went as far as getting permission from their sources’ parents before finalizing their statements for publication.

“We were doing the right and responsible things as a journalist,” she added. "We were taught to make sure all of our sources were accurate.”

But when the issue was finally published, Kuhlmeier and her fellow editors flipped through the pages — and found two pages were missing entirely. The pages encompassed the seven stories on the issues they’d worked so hard to report, write and verify. The principal had decreed them “inappropriate.”

Eventually, Kuhlmeier and others approached the ACLU.

What followed was the yearslong legal battle Hazelwood that culminated in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier. In the landmark 5-3 decision, the justices ruled that public schools do not have to allow student speech as long as the censorship is “reasonably related” to educational concerns and the student speech "inconsistent with 'the shared values of a civilized social order.'”

Cathy Kuhlmeier looks back on landmark censorship case

The ruling created broad censorship powers that rely on school administrators’ subjective determinations of what constitutes objectionable content. The ruling didn’t just affect middle and high school students but colleges as well.

In 1988, when the ruling was announced, Kuhlmeier was a senior in college. Although she opposes the decisions and believes it continues to silence student speech, she said the experience “has helped to shape who I am, because it has taught me a lot of life lessons that to, you know, be thorough in what you're doing. Don't be afraid to stand up and talk about things that are important to you.”

Kuhlmeier now speaks at journalism conferences and to students about the impact of censorship. She worries that the legacy of the court case bearing her name is changing society for the worse and making students less confident, informed and capable of investigating and calling out injustice.

“If we cannot work with kids in high school to help them to critically think and not be afraid of self-censorship, we're gonna end up losing journalists across the country,” she said. “We need to continue to build up and support our youth.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to talk@stlpr.org.

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Danny Wicentowski is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air."

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