Yearbook's Spanish title prompts principal to institute prior review

COLORADO — When the yearbook staff at Denver West High posed the question ”Who are we really?” on the cover of its 2005 publication, it received an unexpected response.

The book, featuring the question in Spanish (”Quienes somos en verdad?”) on the front cover and in English on the back cover — a reflection of the school’s nearly 90 percent Hispanic majority — reached the school’s students on May 5 with little consequence.

But when Denver talk radio host Peter Boyles discussed the yearbook’s Spanish text on his May 17 show, some community members called in to express their outrage at the use of the language in the publication. The yearbook’s adviser, Jerry Clayton, said the angry radio listeners highlighted the anti-immigration sentiments held by some city residents.

”The discussion that was going on in the community about the issue of the yearbook really had very little to do with the yearbook at all,” he said. ”It was a discussion of immigration issues, Spanish-language issues and other agendas that people had.”

Principal Angela Bodenhamer reacted to their concerns by saying she would review the school’s future yearbooks prior to publication. Bodenhamer, sharing the opinion of the community, said an English title on the cover is preferable.

”We are an American school, an English-speaking school,” she told the Rocky Mountain News.

Bodenhamer did not return calls or e-mails for comment.

Clayton said he did not find the cover objectionable.

”It’s a student publication written by students for students,” he said. ”One of the reasons that I think the kids really liked what they did with the yearbook is the fact that it honors and respects their culture.”

Although Clayton stood by the students’ publication, he said he held no qualms with the principal engaging in prior review of future editions of the yearbook.

Colorado is one of five states with student free expression laws but the statute does not prevent prior review, according to Marc Flink, an attorney for the Rocky Mountain News who specializes in the First Amendment.

Under Colo. Rev. Stat. 22-1-120, ”Students of the public schools shall have the right to exercise freedom of speech and of the press, and no expression contained in a student publication, whether or not such publication is school-sponsored, shall be subject to prior restraint.” The statute does not protect expression that is obscene, libelous, slanderous, defamatory, false to any person who is not a public figure or a figure involved in a matter of public concern, or expression that presents a danger to or disruption of the school.

”As long as one does not end up censoring and exercising authority to censor the content of the student publication I’m not sure that there’s anything in the statute that prevents the publication adviser or necessarily any other faculty from reviewing it,” Flink said.

Although there is a distinction between prior review and prior restraint, Marta Hedde, former president of the Colorado High School Press Association and a retired student newspaper adviser of 26 years, said review opens the door for restraint.

”Review often turns to restraint,” she said. ”From a little suggestion about a word change here or there all the way to [a principal saying], You can’t print that story.”’

Joe Torres, deputy director of communication and media policy at the National Association of Hispanic Journalists in Washington, D.C., said the fact that the principal reacted by planning prior review rather than defending the students is unfortunate.

Because of the high percentage of Spanish speakers at the school, the language is not foreign there, Torres explained.

”What [the controversy] says to the students is being Hispanic isn’t good enough,” he said. ”They’re expressing who they are and they’re being told that’s not good.”