Trends in High School Media
An online publication of the National Scholastic Press Association
Dean v. Utica FAQ
By Mike Hiestand
On Oct. 12, 2004, a federal district court judge in Michigan issued a message to America's high school student media that they had been waiting to hear for nearly 17 years: the First Amendment is not dead. The decision, Dean v. Utica Community Schools, is the single most important legal victory for America's high school student media since the Supreme Court issued its devastating 1988 decision in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier and could represent a significant turning point for student journalists trying to combat the ever-growing incidence of administrative censorship.
What was the case about?
In researching the story, Dean contacted school district and township officials, who - as the story noted - refused to comment. She also looked at numerous scientific studies, some of which presented conflicting evidence on the carcinogenic effects of exposure to diesel fumes, a fact that she noted in her story.
Journalists and journalism educators who later looked at the story agreed that the story was well researched, well-written and journalistically sound.
Nevertheless, on March 7, 2002, Utica High School Principal Richard Machesky ordered Gloria Olman, the Arrow's veteran adviser, to pull the story, an accompanying editorial and cartoon.
Why was the story censored?
How did the students respond?
Dean also decided to fight the censorship. A year later - on April 4, 2003 - after school officials had repeatedly refused to reconsider their decision - she filed a lawsuit against the school district in federal court.
Additionally, as part of the censorship battle, the Arrow staff took their case public, garnering wide support at both the state and national level. In fact, a month after school officials censored Dean's article, a local commercial newspaper published it along with an editorial condemning its censorship.
How is this case different from other student censorship cases?
What did the judge say?
First, he found that the Arrow was a limited public forum. To reach that conclusion, the judge examined nine factors to determine the degree of control school officials exercised over the Arrow. Among other things, he noted that students had no practice of submitting content to school officials for prior review nor did the faculty adviser regulate the topics the newspaper covered. In fact, the judge found that during the preceding 25 years, school district officials had never intervened in the editorial process of its student newspapers. He also pointed to language in the district's curriculum guide, course descriptions and the masthead of the Arrow itself as evidence that the newspaper's operations were consistent with that of a limited public forum.
Second, the judge closely examined Dean's article and, using criteria gleaned from Hazelwood - including the article's fairness, proper use of grammar, writing quality, bias, accuracy and quality of research - determined that, in spite of school officials' arguments to the contrary, there was not a "significant disparity in quality between Dean's article in the Arrow and the similar articles in 'professional' newspapers."
The judge also determined that the superintendent censored the article because she disagreed with the viewpoint expressed in the article by the couple suing the school district and that her description of the article as "inaccurate" was simply an attempt to disguise "what is, in substance, a difference of opinion with its content."
Who does the decision help most?
"Public Forum" Student Media
While not the first judge to conclude that Hazelwood created this two-tiered system, it is significant to have yet another federal court judge adopt this legal analysis. For those students who can argue that their media organization operates as a public or limited public forum, this decision provides additional armor to shield it from an administrator's red pen.
Non-Public Forum Student Media
As discussed above, where student editors have not been allowed to make their own decisions about content and, therefore, cannot argue that they are a public forum, the Hazlewood standard applies. For years, however, too many school officials have assumed that Hazelwood's admittedly broad and vague language gave them an unlimited license to censor. This decision makes clear that is not the case: the Hazelwood standard does have teeth; all student journalists attending a public high school retain important First Amendment rights that school officials ignore at their peril.
In Dean, the judge said that even if he had decided the Arrow was a non-public forum, Utica high school officials still violated the First Amendment because their censorhip would not have met Hazelwood's "reasonable educational justification" standard. Katy Dean's article, the judge found, was so well-researched and so well-written and the administration's reasons for censoring were so weak that the actions of Utica school officials simply did not pass constitutional muster.
Good student journalism, the judge decided, prevails.
Moreover, the court found that based on all of the evidence "there is no reasonable dispute that the defendant's speech regulation in this case was not viewpoint neutral," as required by the First Amendment.
Does this decision overrule Hazelwood?
What are the limits of this decision?
What should I do?
"[I]f the role of the press in a democratic society is to have any value, all journalists - including student journalists - must be allowed to publish viewpoints contrary to those of state authorities without intervention or censorship by the authorities themselves."
Dean v. Utica Community Schools provides high school student media with a potentially powerful shield. But students have to be able and willing to use it.
Where can I obtain a copy of the decision?
Mike Hiestand is an attorney, based in the far, upper left corner of the "Lower 48," and works as a legal consultant to the Student Press Law Center.
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