Reflections on Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier 25 years later

by Jim Lang

Time flies when you’re a journalism nerd.

I’ve always proudly described myself as a “journalism nerd.” I’ve been involved in scholastic journalism since I was in high school and was a member of The Hyphen newspaper staff at Jeffersonville High School. I guess I have never completely grown up, because 25 years later, I am still hanging out every day in a high school publication room. This time, though, it’s my students at Floyd Central High School writing the stories, designing the pages, and making a difference.

It was 25 years ago today that the Supreme Court ruled 5-3 to permit administrative censorship in some situations in the Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier case. I was just beginning the second semester of my senior year in high school, and I remember being so shocked that anyone could view censorship as a good idea.

It was especially bizarre for our newspaper staff because The Hyphen was never censored or prior reviewed by our principal at Jeff High, even after the Hazelwood ruling. Truthfully, I don’t believe we ever thought of ourselves as high school journalists. We were taught and treated as professionals by our adviser, Tony Willis, and as a result, that’s how we treated each other and our newspaper. We held ourselves to the highest standards and treated each other and our readers with respect. We took pride in our work and our newspaper because it was ours. No administrator had to look over our pages, check our sources, circle errors with a red pen, question our story selection, or solve our problems…we did that ourselves each day with Mr. Willis’s  guidance and support because we believed in what we were doing and loved doing it. High school journalism at Jeff High remains the most significant learning experience of my life because of his instruction and the freedom and trust we had as journalists.

Today I view this world of scholastic journalism through an entirely different lens. Now I am the adviser instead of the journalist. However, the lessons I learned at Jeff High remain with me 25 years later as a teacher in my own classroom at Floyd Central. My students have written about teenage drug use and alcoholism, depression, homelessness, controversial school closings, budget cuts, test scores, outsourcing of custodians, religion, politics, and hate crimes. Name the topic and they probably have covered it. In two weeks they’re publishing a special section examining school security, shootings, and violence. And in every instance, they have learned at the highest level possible because they have been given the freedom and trust to do so.

I have worked with four different principals at Floyd Central in my 17 years. I am proud to say that my students and I have never been censored; their newspaper, The Bagpiper, has never been under prior review. As a result, my students have the opportunity to take full ownership of their learning in a way that allows them to serve their readers, take pride in their publication, and work as professionals. Additionally, I have been given the freedom as their adviser to implement many of the lessons I learned as a student journalist so many years ago at Jeff High. Sometimes life truly does come full circle.

Twenty five years zoomed by in the blink of an eye. This journalism nerd feels so fortunate and honored to have worked with so many people who have valued real learning over control and administrative censorship.

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