Maryland high school yearbook pulls photos from social networking site

MARYLAND — With blank pages to fill and their deadline looming, the yearbook editors at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, Md., turned to the social networking site, publishing party photos and candid snapshots that students had posted online — without credit or permission.

When the yearbooks were distributed last month, students were startled to see pictures they thought were theirs from a Web site they thought was protected.

“You don’t expect to open the yearbook and see all these pictures that you thought only you were looking at or a few of your friends were looking at,” said Susannah Green, a rising junior who was pictured in the yearbook and wrote about the controversy for the student newspaper.

Green said she and her classmates expect that glimpses of their personal lives shared in a semi-public Internet community should still be treated as private.

“I think when people put their personal pictures on Facebook, it’s a public site, but I don’t think they expect to see it in a publication that everybody gets,” Green said. “Also, you can make your Facebook profile private and protected so only your friends can see it. So with that degree of privacy in mind, people felt a little taken aback to see their pictures there where anyone can see them.”

Students trust Facebook’s privacy settings to restrict their pictures to a much more limited audience than that of a widely distributed school publication. “People felt that their privacy was being violated because they put pictures up on Facebook with the intent of having them solely being viewed by a few friends,” said Lindsay Deutsch, who graduated in June and was co-editor of the school’s student newspaper. “There’s a big difference between posting up photos for friends and having them being archived in the history of Walter Johnson for anyone to see.”

While students objected to the pictures being taken from Facebook, they were less troubled by the pictures themselves. No students or parents complained to the principal, Christopher Garran.

The pictures showed students at parties or dinners, “just hanging out,” as Green described. “No one was doing anything inappropriate,” Garran said.

The only photograph that could have been considered edgy, Garran said, pictured a group of students “tailgating,” holding red plastic cups. “They might not have wanted that in there,” he acknowledged. “But at the same time, I don’t know what’s in those red cups. This was ages ago, this wasn’t even at school. It’s probably not the most appropriate picture to be in the yearbook, but that’s the only one.”

Reproducing images posted on, or anywhere on the Internet, without the owner’s permission violates Facebook’s terms of use and could constitute copyright infringement, according to Adam Goldstein, an attorney for the Student Press Law Center. A legal exception, called fair use, is made when the image or the copyright owner of the image is the subject of news or commentary, which was not the case in the yearbook, Goldstein said.

But with no journalism training and the yearbook adviser out on maternity leave, Goldstein said he would expect the student’s conversance with copyright law to be understandably slight.

“In the computer world, the assumption tends to be, ‘If it’s possible, it’s permissible.’ If someone hasn’t stopped me from taking and printing these pictures, then it must be OK,” Goldstein explained. “And that just isn’t true. One of the first things students learn when they study journalism is, of all the things you can do with a pen, there are some you should and some you shouldn’t.”

Garran agreed that the issue could have been avoided had the students been better informed.

“We probably could have done more in-house to educate students about the use of these things,” Garran said.

With his help, the students developed a new procedure for tracking and crediting all photos. “We talked about having a really clear system so that no photo goes in without a credit, and the students seemed to think that was a good idea,” Garran said.

He also said he plans to expand the journalism education available to yearbook staffers. “We sometimes have speakers come in and talk about journalistic ethics with our student newspaper kids, who are really sort of on top of it, but we don’t really do that with our yearbook students,” he said. “We’ll definitely open that up so that when people speak with our student newspaper kids, they’ll also speak with our yearbook kids so that all our student journalists get some of that education.”

Garran said he sees education, rather than discipline, as the way forward.

“With the photo credits and with giving them the opportunity to sit in on some of the journalism stuff we do with our newspaper kids, I think we’ll address it,” he said. “That’s more of a constructive way, I think.”

The principal also said he stands behind the students and their yearbook.

“The kids did a fantastic job on that yearbook. In my opinion, it’s a great publication,” he said. “They’re good kids, they just made a judgment call on doing some things — probably some stuff they shouldn’t have done, but I think they’ve learned from it.”

“We’re going to continue to have student editors. It’s still a student publication,” Garran vowed. “There are some people who think I should step in a take over, and that’s just not going to happen. I’m in the education business. I’m not in the punishment business.”