The censorship of a Tennessee high school newspaper has brought a First Amendment question back to the chalkboard: When do we limit First Amendment principles in schools?
Earlier this week, Oak Ridge High School principal Becky Ervin recalled 1,800 copied of the student newspaper because it contained an article about birth control methods and an article about tattoos and body piercings. Superintendent Tom Bailey defended the principal’s decision, telling the AP, "We have a responsibility to the public to do the right thing. We've got 14-year-olds that read the newspaper."
Oak Ridge students have reportedly attended school board meetings with hand-written protest shirts that read “censor,” but school administrators do have legal justification for their actions.
The Supreme Court ruled in “Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District” (1969) that the First Amendment does apply to public schools. However, a later decision, “Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier” (1988), seriously limited First Amendment freedoms, citing that administrators can censor non-forum student newspapers.
While Oak Ridge High School educators have the legal ability to censor their student newspaper, they should shelve personal bias and seek a higher standard for supporting First Amendment-entitled freedoms.
Ervin and Bailey are right to take responsibility for the content exposed to students at the school. However, they ought to recognize that an article about effectiveness of contraceptives or an alternative article about abstinence is relevant to a high school audience. Even freshmen are curious about sex, at the very least.
More importantly, they should uphold the First Amendment principles taught in their classrooms.
High school, the last academic endeavor for most Americans, is where American values are taught. Civil rights achievements are glorified in history classrooms. Democratic elections are analyzed and explained in political science classrooms. Yet, at the same institution where we celebrate our freedoms, we limit them, too. High school educators should be aware that they are preparing their students for real world challenges and they should provide them with a real world environment - where First Amendment rights are honored.