When advisers say 'no': Palmer High School students fight to run yearbook pages

Anna Carmichael was at her grandmother’s funeral when she got a call from one of her fellow yearbook editors.

Their adviser, Angie Selman, had a problem with a spread about relationships. Student life and organizations editor Coco Toribio called Carmichael, who was editor-in-chief of Retrospect, the yearbook at Palmer High School in Colorado Springs, Colo., with news about a spread he designed. Toribio told Carmichael that their adviser wouldn’t allow the spread, which included photos of a lesbian couple holding hands, to be published.

At first, Carmichael thought there had to be some kind of miscommunication. But it soon became apparent that Selman wasn’t going to let the spread in the yearbook.

Carmichael met with the school’s principal, who encouraged her to share the school’s nondiscrimination policy with Selman, which Carmichael did. Selman told her the issue wasn’t up for discussion.

About a week later, the administration said the spread was pulled because it included other pictures of male and female students kissing, Carmichael said, which goes against school policies against public displays of affection.

“It seemed a little weird that it was being blamed as PDA,” she said. Toribio said he was working on the page when Selman told him to “cut the gay couple, or I’ll cut the page.”

Devra Ashby, spokeswoman for Colorado Springs School District 11, said Selman was acting under the district’s policy on student publications, which prohibits the distribution of any material that can be considered “obscene to minors.”

Carmichael said the real issue with the yearbook – the lesbian couple – “just got smoke screened,” and meetings with the administration soon lost focus on the original problem.

“They weren’t talking about the discrimination issues,” Carmichael said. “They were talking about that I left class.”

Carmichael and three other students walked out of class in protest after Selman gave an assignment for a “diversity” page that would feature various demographic groups. Carmichael said the spread was to feature demographic “labels” under each photo, but no captions.

All of her pages were cut from the yearbook, Carmichael said, and Selman would repeatedly kick her out of class.

Toribio, who was also the student council president for his class, was not permitted to speak at graduation because of the dispute with Selman and the administration, he said. All of his pages were also cut, the files deleted, and given to other students to design.

Under district policies, Selman is seen as having the final say on content since students publish the yearbook as part of a class at Palmer, Ashby said.

However, Colorado’s Student Free Expression Law states that student editors are responsible for determining content and “no expression contained in a student publication, whether or not such publication is school-sponsored, shall be subject to prior restraint” except in four limited cases. Under the law, advisers are permitted to supervise the production of school-sponsored publications and “to teach and encourage free and responsible expression and professional standards for English and journalism.”

Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate at the Student Press Law Center, said the school’s publication policy that allows the adviser to have the final say directly conflicts with state law.

The law allows advisers to teach, Goldstein said, but that doesn’t mean the lesson can be hands-on censorship.

The students got legal representation and began negotiating with school officials. They eventually reached an agreement allowing the students to create a supplement that can be bound into the yearbooks, which have already been distributed, Carmichael said. But it’s been difficult for the students to complete the supplement because the computer they were given to work on doesn’t work.

Toribio said he thought the supplement would fall by the wayside since students are ready to move on. And all of the pictures that were in the original spread have been deleted, so the students don’t have the same material they originally had to work with.

“We don’t have any pictures,” he said. “That’s our number one problem.”

Steven Zansberg, one of the attorneys for the Palmer students, declined to comment, saying settlement discussions are still ongoing. Sara Rice, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, confirmed the settlement was not yet final as of press time.

Selman could not be reached by the SPLC for comment, but she was quoted in The Gazette, a local newspaper, saying the pages were pulled because of the PDA.

“The picture that the media has shown of the girls in question, holding hands, was never in the spread,” Selman told The Gazette. “I would have never pulled a picture of two girls holding hands from a yearbook.”

Carmichael said that even before the yearbook relationship spread controversy, working with Selman “was an absolute uphill battle the whole time.”

“[She was] very into making sure we knew she was in charge,” Carmichael said.

Toribio said Selman began the year as an “exceptional adviser,” but she began to “push her power around” after the first quarter of the school year ended.

The dispute with Selman also had an effect on the quality of yearbook the students were able to produce, both students said.

“[A] dysfunctional family definitely showed through in the book,” Carmichael said.

Opportunities for advisers

The Palmer case is the most recent in a unique breed of censorship disputes. In these situations, students aren’t just battling the usual suspects – school administrators – but rather with the person charged with providing advice.

In 2009, for example, the newspaper adviser at McPherson High School in Kansas told students they couldn’t run a column about teenage pregnancy. The students ran a white space in the issue where the column should have been, and were eventually allowed to run the piece in a later issue.

Candace Bowen, director of the Center for Scholastic Journalism at Kent State University, said controversies often arise because of “uninformed advisers.”

“They don’t understand the ramifications of the things they do,” Bowen said.

Advisers think that by pulling a story or censoring a certain topic they are helping their students and keeping them out of trouble, Bowen said, “which is totally wrong.”

If an adviser’s first reaction is to get rid of a story, it shows a lack of the adviser’s confidence, Bowen said.

Advisers don’t always come from a journalism background, and many times teachers of subjects like English are placed in adviser positions because they are seen as being “good with words.”

Bowen said advisers who want to grow in their positions have many options, including joining local, state and national scholastic press associations, receiving a mentor through an organization like the Journalism Education Association, by taking courses or by watching webinars.

Joining press associations allows advisers to interact and develop a network with other people who are in the journalism world, which is needed because an adviser can be the only person in their school who does journalism, Bowen said. And organizations like JEA can provide advisers with a set of guidelines to follow.

The JEA Adviser Code of Ethics encourages advisers to trust their students and to advise, not act as censors or decision makers. The code also encourages advisers to ensure students have a free, robust and active forum without prior review or restraint.

And when advisers place trust in their students, their work pays off.

Aaron Manfull, a journalism teacher and adviser at Francis Howell North High School in St. Charles, Mo., said his philosophy is to advise and to be there to help, but “the publications really are the students’ publications.”

The Dow Jones News Fund named Manfull the 2011 journalism teacher of the year.

When working with students, Manfull said he encourages them to think through stories thoroughly.

Manfull said he reads most stories before they go to print, but he has never censored a story or exercised prior restraint.

“[The] final say is always the editor in chief,” he said.

Manfull said he tries to keep personal opinions out of conversations because he doesn’t want his students to think there’s only one solution or way to handle a situation.

“I’m very aware while I may have some good ideas, I’ve had kids come through the room [with ideas] that are a billion times better than mine,” he said.

He said his students can report and cover any topic as long as they act within the law, but they have to understand that they are responsible if someone has questions about the story.

“If a phone call comes, you’re going to be the one who answers the phone call,” he said.

Manfull said the idea of having a student in charge is scary at times, but it’s a myth that reporters have to be a certain age or have a certain years’ worth of experience to report on controversial topics.

“It’s been my experience that you give kids the responsibility and the trust, they are able to make just as good of decisions — if not better — than adults,” he said.

Journalism over free expression?

Goldstein said students might not want to fight an adviser for several reasons. Sometimes, students don’t know they have a right to protest the censorship in the first place.

And students must determine if the battle is worth the fight, which is why seniors are more likely to fight an issue, he said. Juniors have to worry about having the adviser again in class.

Many schools have advisers who place more emphasis on journalism than on free expression and “think bad journalism isn’t constitutionally protected,” Goldstein said.

He said there are many advisers, though, who don’t know how they would react in a situation like the one at Palmer because they haven’t confronted the issue yet.

Toribio, the student life editor at Palmer, advised other students who may be in similar situations not to be afraid of someone who is in a higher position – even if that person is a teacher and adviser. Students should stand up for what they believe is right.

Carmichael, the editor at Palmer, said that the dispute made her question people she had been taught her whole life to respect. But she said it made her stronger, more aware and a better leader.

“It really solidified me in what I think is right and wrong,” Carmichael said.

By Taylor Moak, SPLC staff writer.