Censored yearbook quotes raised questions of prior review at Tucson high school

ARIZONA — School officials at a Tucson high school censored nearly 10 quotes in the yearbook with black stickers before distributing to students.

Sabino High School students received copies of the book later than normal because of the extra time needed to tape over some of the senior students’ quotes that school officials deemed “unacceptable,” said Mike Hicks, a Tucson Unified School District governing board member.

Many in the school community were upset by the taping incident and at least one requested a refund, board member Mark Stegeman said.

Although the incident drew attention in the community, taping over content in yearbooks isn’t uncommon, said Carmen Wendt, Arizona director for the Journalism Education Association. The term “crack and peel” is a well-known phrase in the industry, referring to stickers used to place over glitches that may have slipped through the editing process.

However, not all school officials were happy with the way the principal handled the quotes.

“I was absolutely amazed that it happened,” Hicks said. “I haven’t seen all of the quotes, but I haven’t seen anything derogatory, libelous or harmful in the ones I’ve seen so far.”

Stegeman said that while some of the quotes were in bad taste, nothing he saw seemed to be outrageous or profane.

Sabino High School principal Matthew Munger could not be reached for comment.

Since Arizona does not have a student press freedom statute, the yearbook would be subject to the precedent established from the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, which gives school administrators the right to censor most student expression if there is a valid educational concern.

“Even under Hazelwood, there has to be something more than just an administrators personal objective taste,” said Frank LoMonte, the Student Press Law Center’s executive director. “There has to be actually wrong with the material, either it’s bad english or it’s going to encourage people to break the law or an otherwise educationally valid basis for removing it.”

Both Hicks and Stegeman said that the principal should have been reviewed the yearbook content prior to printing.

“The principal did not do his due diligence,” Hicks said. “I would assume the principal, being the CEO of the school, would have the last review before it goes out.”

However, common journalism education practices usually don’t advise prior review policies, Wendt said.

“To say they have to have prior review I think discounts any level of skill and intelligence that some of those kids and especially their adviser has,” Wendt said. “Do (school officials) go down onto the field and tell the football coach how to play football? Do they tell the cheerleading coach how to cheer?”

This is the second high-profile instance of yearbook censorship in recent weeks. Last month, school officials in Utah photoshopped yearbook photos where students’ attire didn’t meet dress code standards.

Wendt said that a few cases of yearbook censorship happen every year across the country because some administrators don’t always view yearbooks as journalism.

“For a yearbook, one of the main functions is to be historical,” Wendt said. “I understand a principal not wanting negative things published, but it’s not a PR piece for the school.”

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