Senior year of high school is the time to reflect on experiences andmemories with classmates, and Breanne Veney wanted to do just that. Her seniormemories yearbook page was filled with recollections of her time at CubaRushford High School in Cuba, N.Y.
Veney used the phrases “we’re so black and everyone hates on usfor it,” “my white girlfriend,” and “is it ’causeI’m black?” in her page to signify inside jokes with friends.However, when Veney’s yearbook page came across Principal CarrieBold’s desk for approval, Veney was asked to change her words. Boldcrossed out the word “white” and circled “black” bothtimes it was used on the page.
“Please try to reword this,” Bold wrote on Veney’s page.”You may not be offended by this, but others who may read this maybe!!”
Veney said she did not change her senior memories because she wants them tobe her own words.
“It bothers me because I would like to put in the memories that Ihave had with my friends over the years,” Veney said. “I don’twant to put the principal’s words in my memories.”
The student newspaper focuses on public events and issues. The literarymagazine centers on young artists and poets. The student yearbook, however,encompasses every facet of the high school community. Although each of thesepublications differs in content, all of them typically fall under the samestudent publication policy set by school administrators. The role of theyearbook, however, can be a confusing one for teachers and administrators, whosometimes fail to treat the yearbook as deserving the same level of journalisticindependence as a newspaper.
“Both student yearbooks and newspapers exist as forums for expressiveactivity, albeit with slightly different editorial missions and goals,”said Mike Hiestand, legal consultant for the Student Press Law Center.”Absent some language that specifically limits a ‘studentpublication’ or ‘student media’ policy to only newspapers, astudent yearbook certainly falls into either of those fairly broadcategories.”
Veney and her mother took the issue to the school board. They received aletter from the board president that said based on school policy and legaladvice, Veney’s page needed to be changed to be in the yearbook.
The district policy, adopted June 1995, states “the district mayexercise editorial control over the style and content of student speech inschool-sponsored publications and activities that are part of the educationalcurriculum.”
Hiestand said he believes the district policy is unconstitutional.
“Essentially, it says that the school is giving itself an unlimitedlicense to censor,” Hiestand said.
Christopher Trapp, legal counsel for Cuba-Rushford Central School District,said he does not consider asking Veney to alter her senior page to becensorship.
“I would consider this, when you are dealing with language, which canbe deemed offensive, more of a liability problem for the school district and thepublisher of it,” Trapp said.
But Hiestand said altering a student’s word choice because the wordsare “deemed offensive” is a classic case of censorship.
John Bowen, board member of the Journalism Education Association, said thatcensoring the content of the yearbook is like controlling the content of aschool newspaper.
“They are both student publications and if they are set up wherestudents are supposed to be making decisions and learning from what they aredoing, censorship of one is no different than censorship of the other,”Bowen said.
As was the case at Cuba-Rushford, students at West Fargo High School inWest Fargo, N.D., found themselves in a debate with their school over whether anadministrator’s order to change the editorial content of a yearbook was infact “censorship” at all.
Principal Gary Clark said he did not believe he was engaging in censorshipwhen he overruled student editors’ decision to exclude coverage of asister school, West Fargo Community High School, from the yearbook. Rather, hecalled it “a matter of equity.”
Abby Paul, editor-in-chief of the West Fargo yearbook, said the initialdecision not to include the sister school in the publication was “so thatadministrators would not be able to dictate any future coverage.”
The yearbook staff was willing to take lower grades in the class to keeptheir book exclusive to West Fargo High School students, but after discussions,the staff agreed to include the Community High School students.
Paul said she spoke with Clark about future censorship and that he had”no desire to control any other coverage.”
Editors of the West Fargo High School student newspaper, the Packer,said that on several occasions, administrators have been critical of theircontent.
“I think the phrase that our principal used the most is that we givebad PR for our school,'” said Megan McDougall, an editor of thePacker, “which is what bothers us the most, because as a publicforum, we do not feel like we need to be a PR tool for our school.”
Several opinion columns have sparked critical comments from schoolofficials over the past few years, McDougall said.
McDougall added that until this incident with the yearbook, the yearbookstaff “had it easy.”
“Until this year, nobody had a problem with yearbook. It was alwaysthe newspaper that was ‘causing trouble’ or ‘trying to putpeople in bad light,'” McDougall said.
Currently, West Fargo High School has no written policy regarding controlof student publications, but Clark said he is “open to discussing”the idea of creating one.
Jeremy Murphy, West Fargo High School publications adviser who oversees thenewspaper and yearbook, said he teaches his students that the yearbook andnewspaper fall under the same laws, but he said the administration sees itdifferently.
“They would never force content upon the newspaper staff because theyknow they don’t have that right,” Murphy said. “However, theysee the yearbook staff as having different rights.”
Hiestand said that most school officials have difficulty viewing yearbooksas true journalism-based publications.
“I think part of the reason school officials may see the two asdifferent is because of the changing role of yearbooks,” Hiestand said.
“Most yearbooks of the past were not viewed as practicing real journalismbecause most didn’t. That is no longer the case.”