Everything But "Censorship": How U.S. Newspapers Have Framed Student Free Speech and Press, 1969-2008

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Legal scholars rarely focus on student First Amendment rights, and general public understanding of the extent of these rights is vague at best. While media scholars have focused much attention on newspaper coverage of more mainstream issues, no notable attention has been given to examining the way news media cover student First Amendment rights. As future leaders in a democracy, students at public schools are inculcated with notions of civic duty, independent thinking, and a respect for the freedoms that distinguish the U.S. from other countries. However, many public school students are consistently denied their rights to the very same freedoms they are expected to value. When students seek legal action to guarantee First Amendment protections, how U.S. newspapers frame these lawsuits and the students involved can greatly impact public perception of these issues.

This study examines newspaper coverage of eight court cases that set precedent on student free speech and press rights. The cases are Tinker v. Des Moines, Papish v. Board of Curators, Healy v. James, Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, Kincaid v. Gibson, Dean v. Utica Community Schools, Hosty v. Carter, and Morse v. Frederick. Using a grounded theory approach and relying on agenda setting literature, a textual analysis of these eight court cases answers the central research question: How do U.S. newspapers frame high school and college students' right to freedom of speech and press? This study finds U.S. newspapers fail to adequately cover student First Amendment cases in four distinct ways. Most significantly, by framing the infringement of students' First Amendment rights as everything but "censorship," U.S. newspapers minimize students' claims and marginalize their positions.