Can we use a student’s preferred name in the yearbook?

Paper cut outs of question marks strewn around a desk next to a hand holing a pen

Every week, Student Press Law Center attorneys answer a frequently asked question about student media law in “Legal Question of the Week.”

Q: I work on our yearbook and historically we have used students’ legal names to accompany their yearbook photos. Increasingly, however, students have asked that we use a different “preferred” name, often to reflect a different gender identity. 

I am inclined to print the students’ preferred names. However, my principal is concerned that many of these students’ parents (and others) do not know they go by a different name at school, so the yearbook could inadvertently “out” a student to their parents and/or the larger community. She’s also concerned the law may require we use their legal name because the yearbook functions as a historical record. Help!

This is a question we are seeing with growing frequency.

As long as we’re talking about a student-edited yearbook, the choice of which name to use is mostly an editorial call. There is no legal requirement that students be identified by their full legal name — or any particular name — in a student-edited yearbook. For what it’s worth, we generally see that most yearbooks do use preferred names.

But realize that long-term sensitivity around names can work in a number of ways. On one hand, so-called “deadnaming” can be a big issue and most yearbooks try to practice a “do no harm” policy. The AP Style Guide, for example, now recommends that reporters, “Use the name by which [the] transgender person now lives” unless using their dead name is relevant to the story.

On the other hand, some students may use a name in high school that they may not keep over time, and then may come back to the publication and demand that it be changed or taken down (if electronic.) Yearbooks have long shelf lives and lots of readers from outside of the school, so being aware of these issues is important.

The one legal requirement is that you make sure you have clear, valid consent — PREFERABLY in writing — from a student if you’re using a name that is not their legal name or an obvious and/or known nickname (e.g., Mike for a Michael). 

In most cases, a high school-aged student with no relevant disqualifying issues has the legal capacity to consent to how they are identified without needing parental consent, even if it results in their being “outed” or even if their parents object.

In the case you describe above, it sounds like there are some students who may not be fully out in their community. In that case, you should talk with them about their preferred name and the yearbook as a historical record. You might encourage them to talk their decision over with a parent/guardian/trusted adviser — though again, a third party’s permission is not required in most cases.  Finally, you should insist that they provide clear, written consent. We discuss the issue of consent from minors in more detail here. And here is our model consent form, which you could adapt for your purposes.

Contact the Student Press Law Center’s hotline and speak to an attorney if you feel that you’ve been censored. 

Legal questions should be directed toward SPLC’s legal hotline. Legal Questions of the Week are selected based on trends in the legal hotline. The legal hotline is confidential and no identifying information will be used in the Legal Question of the Week segment.