Popping the speech bubble

Under the Constitution, U.S. citizens can walk, breathe and speak freely without fear of the king smiting them because they said something as simple as, “I don’t like the king’s hair today.” Back in 1787, when the Constitution was ratified, that was a pretty big deal. But, in today’s society, it is recognized that there should be limitations on this freedom of speech clause to protect the wellbeing of both the nation and its people.

This Jan. 13 was the 30th anniversary of the Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier decision, a case in which a principal vetoed two articles to be published in the school newspaper. This caused the students to appeal to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri to protect their First Amendment rights. The ruling decided that the First Amendment rights of student journalists are not violated when school officials prevent the publication of certain articles in the school newspaper.

The Supreme Court supported its decision by stating that the principal didn’t violate the students’ free speech rights. It recognized the school’s sponsorship of the paper and the school’s concern for appropriate articles, according to USCourts.gov. This case brought much thought as to what is protected and what is not, especially concerning journalism and other tricky forms.

“A whole generation of adults and now their children and the children's teachers have known nothing else other than potential censorship. Now, in part because of Hazelwood at least, the expectation is news is controlled,” Kent State adjunct professor in journalism sequence John Bowen said.

A student newsmagazine is a forum for student expression and a place where students can inform their school and community about current events and issues. However, student publications may still be subject to prior review: the practice of school administrators demanding that they be allowed to read copy prior to publication and/or distribution, according to Principals Guide website.

“I believe prior review limits freedom of speech and also puts the paper in the hands of the administration, instead of the students. A student-run high school newspaper should have content decisions based on the students, not the administration. Also, in a designated open forum, the government nor the admin has the right to restrict what is printed there, unless it falls under the Hazelwood standard of obscene, libelous or disruptive to the school day,” the Beacon’s adviser Jessica Roads said.

However, in 2007, Olentangy High School’s newsmagazine “The Beacon” published a “love issue” about sex, love and relationships. The February issue became a controversial topic, and administration and parents believed that it was inappropriate for a high school newsmagazine. Similarly, Olentangy Liberty published a controversial story about date rape and a satirical piece that used phrases from popular songs to describe what boys like about girls.

After the controversial stories at both Olentangy and Liberty were printed, the district set up an "advisory board" which included district principals, students, advisers and local reporters to "review" each issue before it was printed.

“It really was a way for the district to cover all their bases and make sure another issue didn't come out that was obscene, like the sex issue was. The advisory board just read all the articles before they were printed. No one ever told us to ‘remove a story’ or censored anything. Like I said, I think it was more so a formality than anything else,” Roads said.

School officials may review the content and reject an article due to one of the following four reasons: where poor grammar or writing is evident, where a legitimate question of age appropriateness of the material exists, where matters beyond the limited scope of the forum are included and/or where the content involves unprotected speech.

In regards to who decides whether a story should be published or not, the board policy states that while student journalists are expected to establish and enforce standards for their publications that are consistent with professional journalism, the publication is subject to limited prior review.

“Essentially, student newspapers are considered limited-purpose public forums, so the student editorial board operates the publication with some oversight from the adviser and/or principal. The students are expected to uphold journalistic ethics and there are limitations to what can be published. Many of those limitations are the same that privately-owned newspapers must adhere to, while some are specific to student-run publications,” Public Information Coordinator Devon Immelt said.

Another case, Tinker v. Des Moines, also impacted people’s views of the First Amendment. At a public high school in Des Moines, students wore black armbands to protest the Vietnam war and were warned against the action and suspended. The students appealed to the Justice System, claiming that their freedom of speech and expression rights to be violated. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the students, according to USCourts.gov, meaning that students do not lose their First Amendment rights completely when entering school grounds.

All speech, other than a few exceptions such as speech which leads to immediate, imminent violence and copyright infringement, is protected under the First Amendment, including hate speech. Although it is technically protected, the issue lies in whether hate speech is ethically acceptable. Hate speech is the use of derogatory terms against a specific group of people based on religion, race or any other characteristic that makes somebody different.

Senior Hannah Roberts has been experiencing hate speech for almost her entire life. She has had many different incidences involving hate speech; one event occurred at school.

“I had a study hall with a boy in sophomore year that thought it was funny to call me a n***** and say things like ‘I’m going to lynch you n*****’ and ‘I’m going to call the KKK to get you’ so that he could get a reaction out of me and see what I would do. A lot of people toss around these words and think that it’s OK and they have the right to say these words but fail to keep in mind the historic background of these sayings and how they are still used to oppress people,” Roberts said.

Hate speech is not restricted to only race. Sophomore Yasmin Yuusuf, who is it is Muslim, has experienced hate speech in a different way.

“I’ve had people call me multiple names such as “terrorist, alien, killer.” I’ve had people talk about me indirectly when I was next to them. I’ve always felt like as I got older, the more I went to a superior about it, the more nothing was done about the hate speech. So I stopped going to an adult every time and had to learn that I have to actually deal with it myself even though I did nothing wrong,” Yuusuf said.

People use oppressive and offensive language on a daily basis all over America. Many don’t know the impact of their words and how they make the targeted group feel. It can be hard to describe for some, but it isn’t a good feeling.

Roberts describes her emotions as “not just a pinpoint feeling that can really describe how I feel in the moment or when reflecting about these instances— it’s really just a mixture. I feel angry, hurt and troubled, but most of all frustrated because I know that I can’t do much to change this individual’s way of thinking or make them understand what it feels like to be called as such because the truth is these words have a terrible historical background.”

Sadly, hate speech is nothing new. It’s been relevant for centuries and most minorities have experienced it in one way or another.

“Hate speech has been a century-long rift in American politics because it pits two deeply held American values against each other: free speech and equality,” author of The Long History of Hate Speech M. Alison Kibler said, according to History News Network.

But what can be done about this issue in the community? Many think there is no action to be taken, that words are words and people should ignore them. But if more penalties were put into place about using hate speech, would the problem occur less?

“I think that there should be penalties that the students need to face because it is hate speech — you are discriminating against a person with the use of these words and sometimes the classic ‘get called into the office to talk’ act or getting a detention isn’t enough. I also think that students need to stop being bystanders and speak up or confront people when they hear instances of or witness hate speech,” Roberts said.

Free speech has its limitations, which have become increasingly relevant. Students especially feel the effects of the growing issue, either from the administration or even their peers. Quite deceivingly, free speech isn’t as simple as speaking one’s mind; it is a complex right that weaves throughout the years, adapting to an ever-changing nation.


Print Editions

Online Editions