On Friday, August 13, SPLC executive director Hadar Harris sent a letter to East End School District (Arkansas) Superintendent Heidi Wilson asking that she reprint pages which had been ripped from the Bigelow High School yearbook and distribute them to the full school community. Harris further asked that the Superintendent attach a formal written apology addressed to the yearbook staff and former adviser Meghan Walter (who resigned due to the censorship), recognizing the rights of student journalists and acknowledging that the removal of the pages was wrong. While acknowledging that nothing could make the students or their adviser whole following this incident, Harris suggested that these steps could help.
In August, as yearbooks were being distributed, school officials physically removed a two-page Year-in-Review spread from the yearbook. The spread provided an overview of significant world events which took place during the prior school year, including the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 election, the death of George Floyd and wildfires in California. The school justified the removal of the pages as due to “community backlash” over the spread.
Superintendent Heidi Wilson, responding to a public records request which asked for any documentation of the “community backlash” said that “we have done an extensive search and do not have anything responsive.”
In her letter to Superintendent Wilson, SPLC executive director Hadar Harris noted that there had already been national attention to the story, with a variety of organizations including the National Coalition Against Censorship, the Columbia Scholastic Press Association, the Journalism Education Association and the National Scholastic Press Association expressing concern over the censorship.
Harris wrote, “In its recent opinion upholding the First Amendment rights of students to speak free of administrative control, the U.S. Supreme Court said that our nation’s schools were “nurseries of democracy,” charged with instilling in our next generation an appreciation for the rights we hold dear. Having Bigelow High School students witness government officials physically ripping otherwise lawful pages from the student yearbook is, I hope we can agree, a lousy civics lesson. We urge you, as professional educators, to take this opportunity to fix that.”
SPLC is waiting for a response.
Read the full letter:
Student Press Law Center: Since 1974, the Student Press Law Center has worked to support, promote and defend the First Amendment and freedom of expression rights of student journalists at the high school and college level, and the advisers who support them. Working at the intersection of law, journalism and education, SPLC runs the nation’s only free legal hotline for student journalists. We also provide training, educational resources and support the grassroots non-partisan New Voices movement, seeking state-based legislative support for student press freedom. The SPLC is an independent, non-profit 501c(3) organization based in Washington, D.C.