Arkansas high school administration censors yearbook profile of gay student

ARKANSAS — Despite state law that protects student expression, administrators at an Arkansas high school are trying to pull student feature profiles from the yearbook.

The Yellowjacket, Sheridan High School’s yearbook, wrote six profiles of students to run with the mugshots. One of the short features detailed junior Taylor Ellis’s coming-out story.

Though both Ellis and his mother are fine with the story being printed, administrators want to pull his and all other students’ profiles, citing a concern that the story may have bad repercussions for Ellis, said Hannah Bruner, assistant editor of Yellowjacket.

“I personally I do not think there’s a risk of that because everyone in the school already knows. It’s not a secret,” said Bruner, who wrote the profile. “He did come out last year and he did it over a social networking site so everyone knows already, and the story, like I said, is talking about how accepting everyone has been toward him.”

Administrators — which ones exactly have not been clear to Bruner — emailed the newspaper adviser about the situation. Bruner hasn’t spoke with anyone in the administration about the censorship. She said any time the adviser suggested they speak with Bruner, they say they want to continue speaking with the adviser about the situation. Bruner has gone to the principal’s office several times to try to talk with him about it, but he has not been available.

Bruner said she’s waited more than a month for the situation to resolve itself as the administration was deciding what it wanted to do, but on Tuesday, the administration told Bruner, through the adviser, the yearbook couldn’t print the article. The yearbook’s deadline for the printer is Friday.

Repeated calls to Superintendent Brenda Haynes and Sheridan High School Principal Rodney Williams were not returned.

Ellis said he wants to get his story out there and he doesn’t understand the problem with printing it. The principal called him to his office to discuss the matter a couple of weeks ago. Ellis said the principal cited concerns that the story was too personal and that it put Ellis at risk of being bullied.

“I think that it’s a good thing for people like me to see that it’s OK to be openly gay in school,” Ellis said. “(The principal) said that it was personal, but it’s really not that personal because everybody knows. It’s not that big of a deal. …It’s just showing other people that it’s OK to be who you are.”

Student journalists in Arkansas are protected from most administrative censorship as a result of the Arkansas Student Publications Act. The law, passed in 1995, requires school boards to adopt student publication policies that recognize that students may exercise their right of expression.

Administrators may only censor student publications that are obscene, libelous, constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy or incite students to commit unlawful acts or those against school policy are “not authorized” under the act.

The law neutralizes the effects of Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, which curtailed some student rights in 1988. In states without “anti-Hazelwood” protections like Arkansas’s, administrators may censor student speech in non-curricular publications if school officials can justify the act by citing an educational reason.

The student publications policy at Sheridan High School says material distributed on school premises must have the principal’s consent. “Libelous and obscene matter and personal attacks are prohibited in all publications,” the policy states.

Bruce Plopper, professor emeritus at University of Arkansas at Little Rock, was involved in creating the 1995 law and said it was meant to give student editors authority over their publications.

“I think that students as citizens have every right to control their publication without administrative control,” Plopper said. “… Most of the time I’d say the students are right and the administration generally is trying to keep bad publicity away from the school district, which is not a good reason for censorship.”

Bruner called removing the story “bullying.”

“They don’t really care about the law, and they’re sending a message to the whole student body and they’re just censoring all of us,” Bruner said.

The principal also called Ellis’s mom to discuss the story before calling Ellis himself down to his office. Ellis said he doesn’t know of anyone from any of the other profiles being called to the office.

If the story doesn’t go to print, “I would kind of feel discriminated against, not totally, because I understand what he means by people bullying me and stuff, but the thing is I don’t believe it will happen because I’m already openly gay,” Ellis said.

It’s important his story is shared with others because it could mean a lot to someone else, Ellis said.

“There’s people that commit suicide because they’re scared of it, and maybe it will prevent somebody,” Ellis said. “You never know how people may take my story and some people will talk about it, some people will not want to read it or anything, but I mean some people it may help.”

The deadline to get the book to the printer is Friday and Bruner said she doesn’t think the administration is going to budge.

“It would probably mean that (the yearbook) would be late because I’m going to fight this,” Bruner said.

By Lydia Coutré, SPLC staff writer. Contact her by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 126.