Censorship of Arkansas Yearbook gets national media coverage: NPR, AP and Jerry Springer

UPDATE: It’s safe to say the censorship of Bigelow High School’s yearbook did not go according to the school district’s plan. 

In the weeks following SPLC’s intervention and public condemnation of the censorship, news outlets across the country have picked up the story. Arkansas news sites, NPR and the Associated Press all covered the censorship, often featuring a copy of the torn out pages. That means far more people have seen the yearbook spread than would have if school officials had never intervened.

SPLC Executive Director Hadar Harris spoke about the incident on the Jerry Springer Podcast, of all places, addressing how it plays into a larger, concerning trend of censoring yearbooks. 

District officials have not yet responded to SPLC’s letter, which called for a reprint of the torn pages and a public apology.

8/16/2021: SPLC Sends Letter to the Superintendent Calling for a Reprint and Apology

SPLC Executive Director Hadar Harris sent East End School District Superintendent Heidi Wilson a letter demanding administrators re-print the censored pages of the yearbook along with a written apology. SPLC has not received a response to date. Our letter can be read below.

8/12/2021: Arkansas high school physically cuts out pages of published yearbook before distributing

Adam Steinbaugh submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the East End School district in Arkansas requesting, “A copy of any document (including, but not limited to, any letters, emails, social media messages, voicemail recordings, or voicemail transcripts) reflecting the “community backlash” against the 2020-2021 Bigelow High School yearbook.”

Superintendent Heidi Wilson responded to the request two days later, “We have done an extensive search and do not have anything responsive.”

The public records request was the district’s opportunity to provide evidence backing up their claim that “community backlash” led them to remove two pages of Bigelow High School’s yearbook.

There was no evidence of community backlash. Administrators at Bigelow High School must be held accountable.

“We’re disappointed, but not surprised to learn that there is no evidence of the ‘community backlash’ that school officials at Bigelow High School used to justify removing the timeline from the yearbook,” SPLC executive director Hadar Harris said. “We are seeing a variety of schools trying to gloss over some of the big news events of the last year. This is a violation of students’ First Amendment rights. The timeline produced by the students was factually accurate, well designed and an example of great student journalism. SPLC won’t stand by while a principal and superintendent trample on their student’s rights and hard work.”

The Student Press Law Center condemns the overt censorship by school officials at Bigelow High School in Arkansas who removed a two-page spread in the yearbook after it was published. The spread outlined important events in the world that took place over the academic year, 2020-2021 including the 2020 election, the deaths of public figures like Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Alex Trebek, the impact of COVID-19, the 2021 Super Bowl, the death of George Floyd and more. After school officials said that they had received “community backlash” about the spread, they ripped out the pages from the yearbooks before they could be fully distributed.

School officials contend that the removal of the pages was because of this backlash and not due to any problem with the quality of the journalism which produced it. Arkansas is one of 14 states protected by New Voices legislation which, in addition to the First Amendment, provides explicit free press protection to student journalists.

The yearbook adviser, Meghan Walton, resigned because of the censorship, saying “I did not authorize the removal of these pages, nor do I support it in any way. Deciding to resign was the most difficult decision I have ever made. However, I needed to stand up for myself and for the students who created that yearbook spread.”

SPLC Executive Director Hadar Harris said, “The controversy at Bigelow High School is only the latest in a number of egregious censorship cases that we have seen in yearbooks across the country this year to wipe certain aspects of the past school year out of our collective memory. We are very concerned that this is just the tip of the iceberg for both yearbooks (which are currently being released) and for student newspapers beginning to report on the new school year.”

In June, yearbook sales were paused by school officials at West Broward High School in central Florida due to coverage of the Black Lives Matter movement in the yearbook .

At George S. Middleton High School in Tampa, Florida, the entire student-written yearbook was replaced by a yearbook that was produced by an external company. The new book excluded most student work, including the student’s coverage of COVID, the 2020 election, and most school sporting events.

SPLC along with the Journalism Education Association and National Scholastic Press Association released a statement earlier this year condemning the censorship and erasure of content from yearbooks throughout 2020-2021. 

Yearbooks are an important historical record of events that take place both within the school community and in the world at large. Student journalists work hard throughout the year to document events in their communities and craft the yearbook. SPLC supports the rights of student journalists to produce content at their sole editorial discretion and condemns these efforts to rewrite history and erase the events of 2020-2021.

The Student Press Law Center (splc.org@splc) is an independent, nonpartisan 501(c)(3) nonprofit working at the intersection of law, journalism and education to support, promote and defend the rights of student journalists and their advisers at the high school and college levels. Based in Washington, D.C., the Student Press Law Center provides information, training and legal assistance at no charge to student journalists and the educators who work with them.