Breaking down yearbook censorship in 2022

Three yearbooks stacked on a desk
Photo by: Stilfehler (CC 4.0 SA / Wikimedia Commons)

It’s hard to overstate the importance of yearbooks as a form of student journalism. Yearbooks give students a platform to capture what their lives have been like throughout an academic year — a function that’s even more crucial in the current moment, where students are living through so many challenging national and global circumstances. Yearbooks also act as historical records that capture life both inside and beyond school walls. 

However, as more students report on important school-wide and global issues, school administrations are increasingly challenging student journalists’ rights and using censorship to prevent publication of “controversial” topics. As just one example, in 2021, school administrators at Bigelow High School ripped out pages of a yearbook citing “community backlash.” The pages were a purely factual timeline detailing the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 Presidential election, the killing of George Floyd and wildfires in California.

As we approach the final months of the 2021-2022 school year, and as page deadlines for yearbooks loom, here is a refresher on what yearbook censorship looks like, and some tips on how you can combat it: 

What is censorship? 

Censorship happens when a person, a group of people or an organization prevents someone from publishing content. For student journalists, censorship can come in many different forms like prior restraint, which happens when a school official tells a student publication they are not allowed to print a story, photo, or piece of media, and/or takes action that prevents publication. 

Censorship can also be less overt and look more subtle. Prior review (which gives school administrators the chance to review content before it is published) is not necessarily illegal, but can lead to censorship. Prior review could result in prior restraint, or effects could be more discreet: administrators may ask for revisions or suggest that student journalists hold off on publishing certain content. 

Other less-direct forms of censorship include:

  • Budget cuts to a student publication related to content
  • Retribution towards a student media adviser on the basis of what was published 
  • Posing challenges to distributing a publication (including stealing newspapers or taking away newspaper stands) 

What does yearbook censorship specifically look like in 2022? 

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, protests for racial justice, the recent presidential election and current events outside of the U.S.’s borders all continue to affect the way student journalists operate in their daily lives and impact what stories they tell. 

Mike Hiestand, senior legal counsel for the Student Press Law Center, said reporting on these events over the past few years has ultimately led to students facing challenges from their administrators.

“That made school officials, in many cases, pretty uncomfortable, and the response oftentimes was simply to try and bury the story, to keep some of the information quiet,” Hiestand said. “So we saw a lot of strict censorship.”

Hiestand said he anticipates hearing more calls to SPLC’s Legal Hotline relating to yearbook censorship as students begin putting together and distributing their content come the end of the school year.

“I have gotten calls … during 2020 and 2021, where students were told that you simply cannot have a current events page, you cannot have content that has anything to do with COVID-19 or Black Lives Matter,” Hiestand said. “That basically, the only thing [students] can cover are school or student related events.”

Have you been censored? Our attorneys are here to help. Contact the SPLC Legal Hotline for student-media law and censorship related questions. 

How can I combat yearbook censorship? 

Whether reporting for a school newspaper or putting together a yearbook, Hiestand said the first, best way for student journalists to combat censorship is to produce strong content. 

“The single best defense, every time, against censorship is good journalism: putting out good work,” Hiestand said. “If I have a student that produced a well written, well researched story that they are proud to stand up and defend, chances are we’re going to win that censorship case.”

Hiestand also said it’s critical to understand what the laws in specific states look like and to understand both the law and what censorship can look like in its many forms. 

“The one thing to take away is that school officials do not have an unlimited license to censor,” Hiestand said. “How much they can censor is going to be dependent a lot on where you are, what school you go to, because it does vary significantly from school to school from state to state. So understand the law.” 

Read SPLC’s top 20 Yearbook Law FAQs and more about what yearbook censorship looks like in the era of COVID-19. And, if you’re curious to learn more about the legislation that protects you as a student journalist in your state, click here to learn more about New Voices.  

Want more stories like this? The Student Press Law Center is a legal and educational nonprofit defending the rights of student journalists. Sign up  for our free weekly newsletter.