Censored Ark. yearbook heads to the printer, but student editor says she'll continue fight

ARKANSAS — A censored version of Sheridan High School’s yearbook will be sent to the printer without the student profiles — including one of a gay student — that sparked a dispute between student editors and administrators.

Hannah Bruner, a Yellowjacket assistant editor, wrote a profile about junior Taylor Ellis in which he discusses the acceptance he’s received since coming out last year. The profile was to run with several others, featuring students who have been through trying experiences or have done something interesting.

More than a month ago, administrators told the yearbook’s adviser they weren’t happy with the profile. Bruner said she’s tried talking with administrators to hear why, but hasn’t been able to meet with them, despite numerous attempts. She publicized the situation last week after administrators told her — through the adviser — the yearbook couldn’t print the articles.

Bruner and Ellis have spoken out to anyone who would listen for the past week. The story has garnered national attention and support from gay rights activists, but administrators hadn’t changed their mind by the printer deadline Friday, she said.

In a statement Superintendent Brenda Haynes said that, in the interest of leading the school in the “proper direction for all students and for our community,” all seven profiles are to be removed.

“We must not make decisions based on demands by any special interest group,” Haynes said. “The seven profiles will not be published in the yearbook.”

Bruner strongly objects to the censorship, which she believes is not justified under the Arkansas Student Publications Act. The law protects students’ free expression and prohibits only obscene or libelous publications, those that constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy or any that may incite students to create a “clear and present danger of the commission of unlawful acts on school premises or the violations of lawful school regulations.”

The district’s own policy says “students are entitled to express in writing their personal opinions” but prohibits “libelous and obscene matter and personal attacks.”

Ellis said he feels discriminated against and is disappointed in administrators. Still, the fight isn’t over, Bruner said. What keeps her fighting is the fact that “if I don’t keep going, this will just continue to happen.”

Staffers were working into Friday evening to re-work the yearbook without the profiles in time to send it to the printer. Yesterday, yearbook adviser Justin Turner put some design elements in place of the area where the profiles were to go, Bruner said, but “apparently it was still visible that there was supposed to have been something there.” The principal requested they further fill the space “so no one would realize that that’s where the profiles were supposed to be,” Bruner said.

“I think that they’re just trying to cover up what they’ve done,” she said. “I’m not very happy about it. They’re trying to cover up that anything ever happened.”

Bruner said she doesn’t think the administration will be successful, because no one will soon forget the controversy.

As local and national media covered the dispute, the conversation has developed from a murmur to a roar.

“I think we were concerned with a small controversy, and the media buy-in and the administration’s decision has turned what could have been a small controversy into a much larger one,” Turner said.

The focus has largely shifted from one of censorship and press freedom to a conversation about gay rights. In a letter to Superintendent Brenda Haynes and Sheridan High School Principal Rodney Williams, the Human Rights Campaign said it would be “unconscionable” to print the yearbook without Ellis’ feature.

“If not resolved immediately, this act of discriminatory censorship will send a dangerous message to all lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students in Sheridan, across Arkansas and around the nation — that they are second-class citizens and their lives are not equally valid,” HRC president Chad Griffin wrote.

Turner said he brought the stories to the administration’s attention about six weeks ago to keep them in the loop.

A couple of weeks later, Turner said the principal told him “no one is happy with the idea of having this in the yearbook.” Later, administrators began saying they wanted to protect Ellis from potential bullying, Turner said.

Ellis said the principal called him into his office to express concern that his story was “too personal” and could lead to bullying. Ellis, who has been openly gay for a year without experiencing bullying, doesn’t buy the argument. He and his mother both wanted to see the story go to print.

Administrators “might as well have just told everybody it was because I was gay that they won’t put it in there,” Ellis said.

People have been really rude to him in the past week, he said. He blames the administration. If they would have allowed the story in the yearbook, a few people may have grumbled, but they could have just turned the page, Ellis said, adding that the censorship has drawn more attention to the situation and created a lot of negativity.

Though he’s lost people he thought were his friends, he’s experiencing support from around the world, and though he’s received many negative comments, the positive ones are overwhelming.

Students’ behavior toward Ellis “made me cry Wednesday, but I’ve had the past two days to decide that I’m totally fine without them, so you just have to believe in yourself and not worry what others think,” Ellis said.

He said he encourages others to never give up and never let people take away their rights.

Turner said he’s always taught his students about their rights to freedom of expression under the 1995 publications act. Turner said he reminds students that even with these rights, they have the responsibility to approach stories ethically. The students agreed Ellis’ story is one that should be printed.

“Watching students take what (I’ve) taught them and apply it to real life — regardless of how it turns out — has been the most inspiring teaching week of my life,” Turner said.

The 1995 publications act neutralizes the effects of Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, which curtailed some student rights in 1988. In states without “anti-Hazelwood” protections like those in Arkansas, administrators may censor student speech if school officials can justify the act by citing an educational reason.

“We have reviewed state law, court cases, and our own policies,” Haynes said in her statement. “It is clear that the adults who have the responsibility for the operation of the District have the obligation to make decisions which are consistent with the mission of our school. We have done so.”

The students are weighing their options going forward. Bruner said she and Ellis are “worn out,” but will continue to fight.

Ellis said what keeps him going is the support from people he doesn’t even know and “Hannah, because she’s really strong, and she knows her rights, and she’s really smart.”

Bruner is determined to not see censorship like this happen again.

“The freedom of press is important because that’s my right as a student journalist and the gay rights, I mean, it’s his right as a human in general.”

Contact Coutré by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 126.