It’s that time of year again when school administrators and student journalists face the nail-biting moment of yearbook release, mostly excitement with just a bit of (occasionally well-founded) trepidation.
When an administration decides to bar the class from distributing the publications, requires them to issue refunds, or directs them to black out a sentence or phrase in hundreds of copies because of unflattering comments about the school, it’s easy to sympathize with the infringement on students’ First Amendment rights.
When a yearbook is confiscated or altered just because of remarks critical of the school, the First Amendment violation is clear.
But it’s less clear where the First Amendment lines fall when administrators feel pressured to remove material from a yearbook, or recall a book entirely, because of inflammatory speech perceived to target others based on race, gender or ethnicity.
A handful of high schools have already issued public apologies, offered refunds or recalled books for what administrators are calling “inappropriate quotes,” which range from negative statements like “The past 4 years felt like prison,” to ideologically divisive statements like “Build that wall.”
Miranda Taylor, a recent graduate of Richmond Early College High School in North Carolina, chose the mantra and succinct immigration policy of President Trump’s campaign as her senior quote because she admired his outspoken nature and policy proposals, according to her interview with the National Coalition Against Censorship.
Richmond Early College recalled the yearbooks soon after the principal discovered Taylor’s quote and a few other “inappropriate” statements, though Taylor’s has been the only one identified.
“Because of (the school’s) statements, social media has now decided that I am prejudiced, racist, and have no right to freedom of speech,” Taylor said in a statement she released. “I have been (threatened) by hundreds of people that I don’t even know, just because I quoted our president.”
Comments on social media have been varied between admiration for Taylor’s stance and disdain for her beliefs.
“While I am sorry that my classmates and I will not have a yearbook, I can honestly say that I am not sorry for defending my freedom of speech,” Taylor said in her statement. “I have always been taught that when I am given a choice, it is up to me to make that choice. I will choose God and my country every time.”
Poston Butte High School in Arizona has apologized and offered refunds for its yearbooks after finding 15 to 20 inappropriate quotes in its yearbook, but many of the parents disagree with the school’s reaction.
Quotes included “I hate all of you,” “The past 4 years felt like prison,” and “If you have never thought about dropping out and becoming a stripper once, you’re lying,” according to The Arizona Republic.
No one has taken the school up on their offer yet, even for the free stickers to cover up quotes.
Sharon Fonzo, the English teacher that advises the club, has been removed as its sponsor.
Another school in North Carolina distributed yearbooks, but not until the yearbook staff took every book and marked out two quotes with black sharpie.
The first quote was a reference to a joke an administrator made to student Julianna Coon: “We’re letting you graduate early because we didn’t want you here a full year.”
The second quote, chosen by student Francis Quinn, said that Mahatma Gandhi was racist.
Both students said they were surprised to find that their quotes had been marked out. Quinn said that the first quote she submitted was not approved and so she submitted the one that was printed.
“There was an editing oversight at the time the yearbook went to print,” Jennifer Purdee, Piedmont Community Charter’s Head of School, wrote in an email. “The decision was made to mark out the inappropriate comments instead of withholding the yearbooks from being distributed. The comments were not representative of the school’s core values.”
A high school in Colorado issued an apology and promised increased editing for next year’s yearbook after a student used a sexual reference for her senior quote.
Administrators said the quote unintentionally made it through the student editor, the faculty adviser and the dean of students.
Danielle Clark, spokeswoman for Poudre School District, did not comment about repercussions for the yearbook staff or adviser, according to The Coloradoan.
Two Supreme Court decisions, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier and Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser, allow schools to exercise some regulatory authority over the content of student speech.
Under Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier schools can restrict speech to the extent that their actions are “reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns,” according to the court opinion written by Justice Byron White.
The courts have been deferential to school administrators interpretations of what constitutes a “legitimate pedagogical concern.”
<In cases where student speech was found to contain language deemed inappropriate by the school, administrators have exercised prior restraint and censorship in the form of restricting distribution, redacting publications, and punishing students and employees.
In 1986, the Supreme Court ruled in Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser that schools could prohibit speech deemed lewd or vulgar because it was inconsistent with fundamental values the school was required to teach, namely “habits and manners of civility essential to a democratic society.”
Matthew Fraser gave a speech nominating a friend for student government that contained a long-running double entendre that resulted in his suspension.
While the lower courts ruled in his favor, the Supreme Court reversed the rulings and said the school was not in violation of the First Amendment.
It’s clear that Hazelwood applies to student media, but less certain that the Fraser standard applies, since the Supreme Court emphasized the “captive” nature of the listening audience in that situation, and a student publication is not forced on unwilling audience members. However, at least
Some states have elected to ensure the free press rights of their student media through legislation. Colorado, where the school apologized for printing the student’s sexual reference as her senior quote, has such a law – though it does not protect obscene language.
Unlike some other states, however, Colorado’s statute does not protect faculty advisers from retribution.