The case arose in 1983 when the principal of Hazelwood East High School in St. Louis censored the Spectrum, the student newspaper, by removing the middle pages because he didn't like two stories on pregnancy and divorce. He took this action in spite of the fact that the statement of policy of the journalism class which produced the paper and School Board policy embraced the Tinker standard upholding student rights to freedom of expression unless that expression substantially disrupted the running of the school or invaded the rights of others. He later argued that he found the articles were inappropriate for young teenagers and involved possible invasions of privacy. (When the articles were published two years later by a St. Louis paper, few people could figure out what the fuss was all about). The principal did not consult with students before removing the two articles he didn't like and four others that appeared on the same pages, and then sending the paper to the printer.
When editors Cathy Kuhlmeier and Leslie Smart went to court on grounds that their First Amendment rights had been violated, the district court upheld the school, but the US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit ruled for the students. Then the US Supreme Court, by 5-3, declared that the principal had a "valid educational purpose" for censoring the paper. The opinion written by Justice White maintained that "A school need not tolerate student speech that is inconsistent with its basic educational mission, even though the government could not censor similar speech outside the school...Educators do not offend the First Amendment by exercising editorial control over the style and content of student speech in school-sponsored expressive activities so long as their actions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns."
In its decision, the Supreme Court majority stated that it is not overturning its "Tinker standard." Individual students still have the right to express their personal views on school premises. But, the court said, school officials do have the authority to regulate "school-sponsored publications, theatrical productions, and other expressive activities that students, parents, and members of the public might reasonably perceive to bear the imprimatur of the school. These activities may fairly be characterized as part of the school curriculum, whether or not they occur in a traditional classroom setting, so long as they are supervised by faculty members and designed to impart particular knowledge or skills to student participants and audiences."
In his dissent, Justice William Brennan did not buy the argument that there should be a difference between individual student expression protected by the Tinker standard and "school-sponsored expression." Calling the principal's action a case of "brutal censorship," he declared, "Censorship...in no way furthers the curricular purposes of a student newspaper, unless one believes that the purpose of the school newspaper is to teach students that the press ought never report bad news, express unpopular views, or print a thought that might upset its sponsors...The Court opens its analysis in this case by purporting to reaffirm Tinker's time-tested proposition that public-school students 'do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.' That is an ironic introduction to an opinion that denudes high-school students of much of the First Amendment protection that Tinker itself prescribed. Instead of 'teach(ing) children to respect the diversity of ideas that is fundamental to the American system,' and 'that our Constitution is a living reality, not parchment preserved under glass,' the Court today 'teach(es) youth to discount important principles of our government as mere platitudes.' The young men and women of Hazelwood East expected a civics lesson, but not the one the Court teaches them today."