Portrait of controversy

Nicole Youngblood wasn’t in her 2002 high school yearbook. Neitherwere Ceara Sturgis and Kelli Davis. Each young woman wanted to wear a tuxedoinstead of a drape for her senior portrait. As a result, their photos weren’tprinted.

In 2004, Blake Douglass took his senior portrait with ashotgun and navy sportsman’s vest. An avid sports shooter, Douglass’ photowasn’t in the yearbook because student editors deemed the portraitinappropriate.

“The thing you have to ask yourself is, what’s the problem?”said Douglass’ lawyer, Penny Dean. “The problem is somebody else doesn’t likeit because it’s different.”

Sydney Spies of Colorado found herself in a similarsituation this year, after submitting a photo in a short yellow skirt and blackshawl around her chest, exposing her midriff. Spies’ photo was removed from thebook after editors decided the photo was inappropriate.

Within limits, students in public schools have a FirstAmendment right to wear expressive clothing, jewelry and haircuts, and somehave successfully sued their schools when forced to change their appearance.But there are no published court rulings addressing whether that right extendsto a student’s choice of apparel for a yearbook portrait. And the issue iscomplicated by the fact that other students’ First Amendment rights – theeditors’ – can override the individual students’ stylistic choices.

Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate for the Student Press LawCenter, said the cases involving yearbook photos all have one thing in common:misaligned expectations.

“In general, everybody in these cases wants the same thing,”Goldstein said. “Sydney Spies wants to have a photo that encapsulates who sheis and the yearbook editors want to have a book that encapsulates what theschool is. Douglass wanted a photo that encapsulated his love of sportsshooting and the yearbook editor’s wanted a photo that captured their studentsthe way they were.”

Goldstein said in these situations, things didn’t have toget hostile. Spies protested the yearbook, taking her story to the TODAY Show.Douglass chose to have “censored” written where his photograph was placed.Every case but Spies’ resulted in a lawsuit.

“It was about people having different ideas of how toaccomplish the same goal and when everybody wants the same goal, you should beable to sit down and find a way to compromise and reach it,” Goldstein said.

Portrait problems

Douglass lost his case in 2005. Dean said as a result ofDouglass’ photo, the school board implemented a policy during the caseaddressing the use of props. In the end, Douglass wasn’t in the yearbook, buthe printed sticky-sided photos for his friends to stick in their books.

Sydney Spies became an overnight celebrity, using themomentum to place pressure on her school’s yearbook editorial board.

Spies submitted her photo Dec. 2. As editorial board memberBrian Jaramillo flipped though the different portraits to decide on a layout,he said the photo immediately caught his attention.

“It kind of shocked me, which is when I told the othereditors,” Jaramillo said. “We started to discuss the photo and worry about howpeople in the community would view the photo.”

Spies herself has been on the yearbook staff for four yearsand said adviser Tammy Schreiner spoke with her right before Christmas aboutthe photo.

“I said, ‘are you sure you want to put this photo in here?’She said she wanted to make a statement to the administration,” Schreiner said.

Spies was told her photo was inappropriate for the yearbookbut Spies disagrees.

“I don’t think it’s too provocative,” Spies said. “You seemore when you go to the beach and I know there’s been worse pictures in theyearbook that this one.”

Goldstein said student editors always have the last say whendetermining book content. As a result, editors can reject a photo because theythink it’s inappropriate.

“They can reject your photo because they don’t like thatthere’s a grin in it,” Goldstein said. “They can reject your photo because theydon’t like the photo. They can reject your photo because they think you’re toosexy.”

Regardless, Goldstein said editors should have standards andadhere to those standards. He said editors should be specific about why theyreject a photograph.

“Yearbook photographs are sort of uniquely likely to becomea pingpong game when you reject someone’s photograph,” Goldstein said. “They’llcome back at you with another photograph that probably also won’t meet yourstandards. You can shorten that game as much as possible by being as clear aspossible about what it is you expect in photos up –front.”

A pingpong game is exactly what developed between Spies andDurango High School’s yearbook, the Toltec.


“We decided the photo was inappropriate and that’s not whatour yearbook (is),” Jaramillo said. “The student body, for the most part,agreed with the editorial staff on their decision. Not only did we think it wasinappropriate but so did the senior class.”

Both Jaramillo and Schreiner said the administration hadnothing to do with the decision concerning Spies’ photos. Schreiner said shehad to tell the principal to stay away from the situation and let the studentshandle it.

Toltec’s editorial board gave Spies a “Plan B,”allowing her to run photos in the senior ad portion of the book. Spies jumpedat the chance, buying a full-page ad. On the ad: her senior portrait coveringthe full page.

“We didn’t expect her to run the photo full-page,” Jaramillosaid. “We told her she could run her ad, but she had to mix her photo withother photos or submit a different senior portrait.”

Spies submitted a second photo that was also rejected by theboard. In the end, Spies pulled her photos and ad from the book. Spies’ mugshotfrom her student ID is being used instead.

Goldstein said the tug-of-war could have been shortened ifthe board’s explanation for rejecting the photo was more detailed.

“Everybody understands the concept of a portrait shot,”Goldstein said. “Not everybody has the same concept of sexy… I want toemphasize the editors are within their right to reject those photographswithout those specific explanations but you should expect if you don’t have thelevel of specificity, you’re going to hear about it.”

Goldstein said ultimately, student editors have the finalsay over content in the yearbook. To minimize miscommunication, student editorsshould have a policy or clear set of standards that is known to all studentsand his or her photographer.

Portrait censorship

Ceara Sturgis’ senior portrait wasn’t rejected by yearbookeditors but by administrators. Wesson Attendance Center seniors traditionallywore drapes and tuxes for their portraits. Feeling “uncomfortable” in thedrape, Sturgis wore the tux.

As a result, Sturgis was told her photo would not appear inthe yearbook because it violated school policy. Sturgis filed a discriminationlawsuit, “on the basis of sex and on the basis of sex stereotypes,” in August2010.

In December 2011, Sturgis’ photo was displayed alongside herclassmates’ in the Wesson Attendance Center library, part of a settlementSturgis reached with Copiah County School District.

“I am thrilled that my photo will join my classmates on thewall of our school library,” said Sturgis in an ACLU press release. “It’simportant that nobody else will be forced to wear something that doesn’treflect who they are.”

As a result of the suit, the district implemented a newportrait policy that all students will wear caps and gowns in senior portraits.

“Hopefully no other students will be excluded from thisimportant rite of passage simply for expressing themselves,” said Bear Atwood,legal director of the ACLU of Mississippi, in the press release. “Copiah CountySchool District has done the right thing by changing the yearbook policy so nostudents have to feel as if they’re out of place.”

Goldstein said an administrator who wants to censor a photohas to satisfy the applicable legal standard for the yearbook, regardless ofwhether the content is provided by editors or a third party.

“So, in your typical Hazelwoodyearbook, you’re going to have to have some legitimate educational concern forcensoring that content,” Goldstein said.

Public school administrations can’t spike a photo just forthe sake of censoring or because it’s not traditional for a girl to wear a tux,Goldstein said.

McKinney High School adviser Lori Oglesbee said whendeciding if a student’s photo is appropriate, the editorial staff at McKinneydiscusses the clothing choices as it relates to the student’s personality andcoordinates with the publications policy.

McKinney High was impelled to revisit its policy for a veryunexpected reason.

In 2008, students at the Texas school received their booksto find that, in a few portraits, female heads had been edited onto male bodiesand vice versa. The yearbook photographer, Lifetouch Inc., received instructionsto ensure that the photos had a uniform appearance. Those that didn’t were“assigned” new torsos. 

Oglesbee said as a result, the staff implemented a new photopolicy. Oglesbee said her students have what they call the “Ron Pitt Rule,”named after a former editor.

“If it improves the life of one student or makes our schoola better place, it’s worth the risk no matter what,” Oglesbee said. “You have astandard there, is it worth pushing?”

Student decision

Schreiner said it’s ironic her students in Durango, Colo.,decided not to run Spies’ photo because they had the legal option to run theportrait. Colorado is one of seven states with a heightened level of legallyprotected press freedom in student publications.

“They knew they could run the photo but said, ‘OK, we don’thave to run it. We have the freedom to do what we see fit,’” Schreiner said.

Oglesbee said she can counsel students, but ultimately it’s[the] students’ book and their decision.

“In most states, yearbook is part of the curriculum and studentshaving editorial decision is a class expectation,” Oglesbee said. “Just becauseyou’re a student of the school doesn’t (necessarily) mean you have the right toput whatever you want in the book.”

Goldstein said to avoid confrontations student editorialboards should have a policy relating to portrait expectations. If the districthires a photographer and has a commercial relationship, then the districtshould also have a policy. But in the end, the buck must stop with yearbookeditors.

“The only vision that really determines the outcome of whata yearbook is, is the vision of the editors,” Goldstein said.

By Emily Summars, SPLC staff writer