• Tattoo ads pulled from student newspaper

    Date: 11.06.09 | by Judge Tom.

    The Wolf’s Howl is the student newspaper at Timberland High School in Wentzville, Missouri. In October, 2009, the principal removed an article and editorial about tattoos. He further announced that tattoo ads in the paper were to be cancelled.

    The principal explained that tattoos are in the same category as drugs and alcohol and is therefore subject to censorship. He further commented that most students were under the statutory age limit to get a tattoo without parental permission. In Missouri, you must be 18 to be tattooed unless a parent or guardian is present and signs a written consent.

    The leading case regarding school censorship of student written expression  is Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier (1988). The court approved censorship by the school when the expression conflicts with the school’s educational mission. Since a school newspaper is not a public forum, open to anyone, the school may, within reason, restrict its content.

    Hazelwood was a Missouri case. It’s interesting that over the past twenty years, the state hasn’t passed a Student Free Expression Law to prevent prior review of high school newspaper content. Perhaps this incident will spark discussion of the subject and possible legislation.

    Do you consider tattoos to be in the same category as drugs and alcohol? Is there a difference that sets tattoos apart from the others, thereby rendering them an acceptable topic? Should the faculty or administration be able to limit the discussion of certain subjects by students in the school paper, yearbook or play? Why or why not?

    Judge Tom

    This post was written by Judge Tom. Judge Tom is the founder and moderator of AsktheJudge.info. He is a retired juvenile judge and spent 23 years on the bench. He has written several books for lawyers and judges as well as teens and parents including the recently published 'Teen Cyberbullying Investigated' (Free Spirit Publishing). When he's not answering teens' questions, Judge Tom can be found hiking, traveling and reading.

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    2 Comments subscribe to these comments.

    • Jaye
      Fri, 18 Dec 2009 at 03:50

      im a student at timberland and i think the whole thing is rediculous!!! yea, because we want to talk about tatoos, we are suddenly going to go out and get high or drunk… what ever!! that is a bunch of bull. i actually got to see the page that got pulled, and there was absolutely nothing wrong with it. and hes doing the same thing again. yestarday(after papers had been handed out)he pulled the paper because of a picture of a cnacer ribon tatoo (that was less than an inch tall)i could’v MAYBE been ok with his not wanting the picture in the paper, if he hadnt approved the same thing that went to press a week earlier. but he’d already approved the paper. i understand that he does have the authority to check the paper… my own parents are quite aoslute on that topic. but both papers met his reqirements and he’d already given the go-ahead with both. SOMETHING REALLY NEEDS TO BE DONE!!!!
      Thanks for the comment.

    • Nikki McGee
      Wed, 13 Jun 2012 at 02:55

      I was the editor of the paper when this happened.
      The principal did have the right to censor- as long as they provided an educational reason upon censoring as stated by the Hazelwood standard.
      The problem was that he refused to provide us with an educational reason upon request, and delayed in getting us the educational reason for weeks. It took attorney calls and letters to get the educational reason “tattoos fall under the category of Drugs, Alcohol, Tobacco, etc.).
      Unfortunately, that was sufficient because what constitutes an “educational” reason is not defined by Hazelwood.

      We were most upset because he told us we could print the stories and ads the day before we went to print, and then the morning of he changed his mind. We asked for his educational reason, he told us that he did not owe us a reason- Wrong-o.

      But I wrote this post to inform “askthejudge” that the picture on this page captioned “TImberland High School” is not actually our high school.

      Anyway, as it ends up, our adviser quit this year after much harassment from administration from the whole ordeal. They got a new adviser who would go along with the principal’s song and dance. There is not enough people interested in doing newspaper next year, so as of now, it’s up in the air if there will be one. During my time, it was nationally award winning and there was a fight to get on staff.
      So what does that tell you about censorship?
      Dear Nikki: Sorry to hear about the newspaper and your experience with the administration regarding the article. Maybe you can start your own, gather some like-minded classmates to contribute and permission from the school to distribute it on campus. It’s been done before. We’ll check on the Timberland photo – thanks for letting us know.
      (This is information only – not legal advice).

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