Colo. yearbook was not censored in weirdly popular ‘navelgate’ story

(With apologizes to Barbara Eden for the subject line. I’m not sure what else to call this.)

If this week’s news cycle is to be believed, nothing moves a story faster than a bare midriff. At least that’s how it looks, after a story about Durango High School’s yearbook went international. Unfortunately, the version that’s made it around the world is wrong.

The story as I originally heard it was that high school senior Sydney Spies had her yearbook photo rejected by the administration because it didn’t conform to the dress code. In the photo, Spies’ midriff is exposed.

If this story were true, Durango High School would’ve been in violation of the Colorado Student Free Expression law, an anti-Hazelwood law that prohibits censorship of student publications unless the content fits into certain categories of illegal or disruptive speech. While Spies’ photo may have a spark typically absent from senior portraiture, it probably would not incite a riot, and doesn’t fit into any of the proscribed categories.

But that story isn’t what actually seems to have happened. Because after talking with one of the yearbook’s editors, it sounds like the decision to reject the photo was made entirely by the editorial board–not by administrators.

The Colorado Free Expression Law says that student editors are responsible for determining the content of student publications. While the administration could not legally reject Spies’ photo, the editors can. And even though the photo is basically inoffensive, it is a departure from the style of senior photographs typically featured in the book, and as yearbooks are judged partially on consistency, the editors chose to maintain the consistency of the book.

That’s really only half the story. The other half is the curious attention the story has gotten in general. Even if the original version of the story had been true, it doesn’t worry me as much as the Ohio district that, in December, said it was considering prior review after students expressed opinions on homosexuality in its pages. Or the New Mexico principal that censored a cartoon critical of the school football team’s losing record. Or any one of the other thousands of students I’ve talked to that have experienced censorship.

Should I be counseling the victims of censorship to take their belly shirts to a photographer before sending out a press release?