ACLU-MO History Spotlight: Free Speech by Students

Speaking up for the rights of young people in our society has long been a part of the ACLU of Missouri’s mission.

Early efforts included speaking out against comic book censorship in the 1950s and ensuring that the freedoms enshrined in the Bill of Rights were taught to students in the 1960s. By the late 1970s, efforts increased with the publication of the guidebooks “Juvenile Rights: A Handbook for Missouri Youths” aimed directly at children and teens.

Library Books Banned in Public School

book cover if Catcher in the RyeIn 1983, over 60 books, including Headman, Go Ask Alice, and The Catcher in the Rye, were deemed objectionable by the Anaconda School District school board and removed from the school’s library in St. Claire, Missouri. A concerned member of the Missouri Library Association asked the ACLU to investigate.

ACLU volunteers researched the issue and attended a school board meeting. They explained that while school boards had control over classrooms, students had a First Amendment right to select books from the library, and it would be fraud to discard books purchased with federal education funds.

After multiple phone calls and visits, the books were finally returned to library shelves, although only 7th and 8th grade students with a parent’s permission could check them out.

School Newspaper Censorship

In 1984, students from Hazelwood East High School wrote a series of articles about teen pregnancy, birth control, and divorce for the school’s newspaper. The stories were removed by the principal before the paper was printed.

Seeing this as a violation of the students’ right to free speech, the ACLU of Eastern Missouri helped editor Cathy Kuhlmeier and reporters Leslie Smart and Leanne Tippett challenge the school’s decision in court.

Globe magazine headline "To Hot for Hazelwood"

The student journalists from Hazelwood and their story were featured in the Globe-Democrat weekend magazine, Feb. 9, 1985

In 1987, Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier reached the Supreme Court. Taking the case to the Supreme Court was a loss. Ruling 5-3 in favor of the school district, the court determined the removal was “reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns,” since the paper was a school-sponsored class activity.

Journalist Bill Freivogel notes in ACLU of Missouri: A Brief History  that “… one of its biggest failures in court was mishandling the Hazelwood student newspaper case, opening the door for school administrators to censor student journalists.”

More

Island Trees School District v. Pico, 457US853 (1982)

Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, 484 US 260 (1988)

American Library Association (ALA) resources on First Amendment and Censorship


ACLU-MO @ 100

This post is part of a series in recognition of the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri’s centennial year (1920-2020). Read more stories at: https://library.wustl.edu/tag/ACLU-MO@100/

If you have a question about this post or other topics related to St. Louis history, I can be reached at mrectenwald@wustl.edu or on Twitter: @mrectenwald.

About the author

Miranda Rectenwald is Curator of Local History, Washington University Special Collections. More info.