Calif. school district overrules yearbook editors' decision to reject photo

CALIFORNIA — A Pleasanton school district is overruling a high school yearbook’s decision to reject a senior photo that student editors deemed inappropriate.

Senior Kenton Koos, an independent study student, submitted the photo of himself wearing a nose ring, spiked-up hairstyle and a Mike Tyson-styled facial tattoo along with the required tuxedo to the Amador Valley High School yearbook.

The photo was submitted in November to run in the senior photo section, but the student editors rejected the photo because they did not feel it was appropriate for the section, said Principal Jim Hansen.

“This is the senior pictures, the girls wear drapes and the boys wear tuxes,” Hansen said. “It’s a very formal section. The rest of the yearbook can be very casual. Perhaps this picture could be in another spot in the yearbook.”

After the photo was rejected, Koos contacted local media outlets and they publicized the story. This, Hansen said, prompted the Pleasanton school district administrators to contact Amador Valley in early December and instruct Hansen and the yearbook staff to run the photo in the senior section.

Hansen said the student editors want to be able to make decision like this themselves. In light of the district’s decision though, editors have been talking with Koos about running the photo. Hansen said editors would like to compromise and run the photo elsewhere in the book.

“They feel it is their purview to decide,” Hansen said.

Odie Douglas, Pleasanton Unified school district’s assistant superintendent of educational services, said it was the district’s decision that Koos should be able have his selected photo run. Douglas said the yearbook staff is welcome to give input on decisions like this, “but their rights cannot trump individual rights.”

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said that under California state law, the editors have the right for themselves to decide whether to run the photo.

“It’s actually pretty well established in the law that there’s not a constitutional right to have your picture in a yearbook that trumps the editor’s discretionary authority,” LoMonte said. “California law makes student editors captain of the ship, including deciding whether a photo does or does not meet their stylistic standards.”

California’s Student Free Expression Law gives student editors the specific right to determine the “news, editorial, and feature content of their publications,” with some authority given to advisers in the matter of supervising production and ensuring professional conduct.

“This is a perfect illustration of how a school can minimize its liability exposure by leaving its editorial judgments to the students,” LoMonte said. “The student in the photo can’t sue the school because of a decision made by a group of individual students.”

Neither Koos nor the yearbook’s editor-in-chief could be reached for comment. The yearbook’s adviser declined to comment.

By Jordan Bradley, SPLC staff writer. Contact Bradley by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 124.