Courtesy of the First Amendment Center

Two years ago I sat upon the graduation stage to receive a diploma that would end my 13-year relationship with the public school I attended since kindergarten.  As a member of a class of 125 students, this day symbolized endless shared memories and a common identity between us.  Out of the five speeches given, the three student speakers truly spoke to our class—and this is what student free speech is really about.  It is about the ability to communicate the experience of such a specific and sensitive age group.  Parents are endlessly befuddled by the actions and emotions of teenagers. By providing avenues of expression, schools aid students in providing an explanation.

In a recent report, the Student Press Law Center (SPLC) warned of the expanding application of the Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier (1988) decision to students’ school activities– including recent cases of graduation speech censorship. To be honest, as a high school student I was blind to this case and its possible implications on my activities as a student.  However, it is disillusioning to think that many public school administrators hold so little trust in their students.

In my mind, the consequences of Hazelwood can stretch far beyond a school newspaper article or play.  Adults often write off teen behavior as a “phase” that will pass in the transition to maturity.  Through this denial, teens develop the complex that they are “misunderstood” and often self-alienate from resources for communication or (in some cases) more serious issues.  In high school, teens are able to find a community of peers that share this experience. Forms of school censorship suppress this mutual understanding instead of harnessing its potential through campus media.

According to the State of the First Amendment 2011, the Hazelwood decision may be losing ground.  For the first time since the question (Q7) was asked, the majority (51%) of respondents answered in agreement to the statement: “Public high school students should be allowed to report on controversial issues in their student newspapers without approval of school authorities.” Teens are increasingly exposed to harsh realities in the media and therefore are learning to comprehend and analyze an imperfect world. Censoring speeches or plays will not change this.

I am unsure how much “editing” went into the student speeches given at my high school graduation yet the results fulfilled the ultimate goal: to capture the character of a particular class—not the school or town.  In all educational activities, school administrators should be proud to foster their students’ creativity rather than buckle under reputability pressures. There must be a happy medium between muting students’ voices and allowing behavior that truly disrupts the learning environment. It is unfortunate that the current interpretations of the Hazelwood decision perpetuate such underestimations of teenage expression.