NEW YORK — An issue with a student’s yearbook page atCuba-Rushford Central School, in Cuba, N.Y., is more than just black or whiteafter her principal told her to change some words on the page.
“I just wrote my senior memories and turned them into the principal, andthey wouldn’t allow them to be put in the yearbook … because I put theword ‘black’ in there,” said senior Breanne Veney.
All students were required to turn their page into Principal Carrie Boldfor review, and according to Veney’s mother, Trina Rickard, Bold crossed out theword “black” from Veney’s page and changed it to “unique.”
“What is ‘unique?'” Rickard said. “How does that measure up to black orwhite? Is my child different because she is black?”
Veney wrote “we’re so black and everyone hates on us for it,” “my whitegirlfriend,” and “is it ’cause I’m black?” in her senior memories page,according to Rickard.
Anne Brungard, superintendent of the Cuba-Rushford School District, saidthe school asked Veney to “reword” her senior memories page after consultingwith Christopher Trapp, legal counsel for the school.
“In my view, it could have been deemed offensive by some people, andtherefore, rather than offend some people the better course of action is to makeit inoffensive to anyone,” Trapp said. “A recommendation was made to allow thestudent to present something else, which might not be deemed offensive, whilestill certainly if anyone wants to acknowledge their heritage or be proud oftheir heritage, that is certainly acceptable. That is not a problem.”
Trapp does not consider this an issue of censorship.
“I would consider this when you are dealing with language, which can bedeemed offensive, more of a liability problem for the school district and thepublisher of it,” he said. “I think the First Amendment and the cases that aredecided under that are fairly clear in terms of responsibility of the schooldistrict in that regard.”
On the other hand, Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student PressLaw Center, believes previous cases regarding the First Amendment speak forthemselves.
“The Supreme Court has clearly stated as recently as the Morse v.Frederick case in 2007 that schools have no right to censor speech justbecause administrators deem it to be ‘offensive,”‘ LoMontesaid.”Chief Justice Roberts even used the term ‘offensive’
right in the opinion. It’s amazing that school lawyers are stilltelling administrators they have the right to censor speech on the grounds of’offensiveness.’ It’s equally amazing that schools areclaiming they could be liable to lawsuits from people offended by an item in ayearbook.”
LoMonte does not agree with the administration’s decision and reasoning forasking Veney to change her page.
“There is no legal claim for hurt feelings, and there is no conceivable waythat a student referring to her race in a yearbook could give anyone a right tosue,” LoMonte said. “I’d challenge the school district to comeforward with a single court case in which a school has ever been ordered to paydamages to people who found a remark in a yearbook upsetting to them.”
Veney said she feels her rights were violated, and Rickard believes this is”racism on the school’s part.” She addressed the school board on Jan. 13 duringan executive session, where she asked the board to be “open-minded.”
“When I first read my opening statement … they all gave me this look likeI should be ashamed of myself for even bringing up a topic like this todiscuss,” Rickard said. “Like it was dirty. (Like) I should just crawlunderneath the chair and be ashamed of myself.”
Rickard received a letter Jan. 21 from school board President AileenSirianni, stating that “based upon Policy #7411 Censorship of School-SponsoredStudent Publications and Activities (6/13/95) as well as the advice of our legalcounsel, the board’s decision will stand that Bree’s senior memories will haveto be changed and approved before it is printed in the yearbook.”
Rickard does not believe this policy should be applied to her daughter’ssenior memories page.
“The policy states that you can accept or reject,but where in this policy does it state that the kids can’t use a word related torace,” she said. “Black, white, or bi-racial.”
Veney said she will not turn in her page unless she can use the originallanguage.
“It bothers me because I would like to put in the memories that I have hadwith my friends over the years, but then again, on the other side … Idon’t want to put the principal’s words in my memories.”