Administrators of Seminole County Public Schools in Florida initially prevented the distribution of the Lyman High School yearbook because of a spread documenting the student walkout over the state’s Parental Rights in Education bill, often known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. After public outcry, statewide media coverage and dozens of students, teachers and community members pleading at a School Board meeting to release the book uncensored, the district compromised. Rather than covering up the spread, they opted to add non-obtrusive stickers clarifying the protest was not a school-sponsored event.
The Student Press Law Center — and the students of Lyman— are very happy with this outcome. But this cannot happen again. On May 11, SPLC sent the letter below to the School Board urging them to adopt a new student media publications policy to prevent future censorship in the district. Read it in full:
See the letter as a PDF
May 11, 2022
Dear School Board Members:
We are writing to express our organization’s sincere thanks for your actions on May 10 in support of the Lyman High School yearbook staff, and for the strong words from members in support of the voices of Seminole County Public Schools’ students and student journalists. We are thrilled to see a compromise reached so swiftly and decisively, and would like to work with the Seminole County School Board to ensure that no student journalist ever finds themselves facing censorship like that which the Lyman yearbook staff experienced this week.
Unfortunately, as was mentioned several times during the May 10 meeting, the current Seminole County Public Schools School-Sponsored Publications and Productions policy all but ensures that another student journalist will be censored for confusing and arbitrary reasons. We urge the Board to revisit the policy, and to adopt one that provides clarity to students and administrators regarding unprotected speech, removes subjectivity from the process, and ensures a clear appeals process to ensure that censored student journalists have recourse that does not need to include the kind of widespread outrage Seminole County experienced this week. We have attached our model student media publications policy, and look forward to working with you as you adopt new language.
The Student Press Law Center (SPLC) is an independent non-partisan, non-profit organization based in Washington, DC that supports and protects the press freedom of student journalists and their advisers. As a key part of our work, our free legal hotline works with student journalists whose voices have been censored, suppressed, or otherwise curtailed. We see daily the serious and far-reaching impact that unclear policies can have on student journalists and on the student body as a whole.
The Seminole County School Board policy tracks language from a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court case known as Hazelwood School District v, Kuhlmeier, in which the Court held that school-sponsored media can be restricted when there is a “legitimate pedagogical concern.” However, the Court failed to articulate what such a concern might be. As a result, school districts and student journalists have been forced to operate for three decades under a confusing standard wherein a “legitimate pedagogical concern” is often felt to be whatever the administrator decides at the time.” That administrator decision may be diametrically opposed to how the related board of education or another administrator would decide. The standards are constantly shifting, leading student journalists like the Lyman High School staff scrambling to determine if something is acceptable to the particular administrator reviewing their publication at the time, rather than focusing on meeting the requirements of journalistic ethics. Left alone, policies like those of the Seminole County Public Schools inevitably lead to situations like that of the Lyman yearbook this week.
For instance, it is our understanding that the Lyman yearbook was censored out of concern that the draft failed to expressly state that the walkout was not a school-sponsored event. But nothing within the SCPS policy discusses such a requirement. Superintendent Beamon states that the policy allows for censorship when the speech in question is “likely to cause the substantial disruption or material interference with school activities or the educational process,” but the yearbook spread captured an event that had already happened and presented no new threat of “substantial disruption” as that term has been interpreted by courts. It simply documented an event that was important to the life of the school and its students, as journalists do, whether or not it was school-sponsored. SCPS policy states that legitimate pedagogical concerns “include the teaching by example of the shared values of a civilized social order, which consists of not only independence of thought and frankness of expression but also discipline, courtesy/civility, and respect for authority,” but this provides no clarity to student journalists about whether coverage of controversial issues will be deemed appropriate by any given school administrator. We remain uncertain as to the exact “pedagogical concern” raised by the Lyman high school yearbook, and believe students and administrators are likely similarly confused.
This sort of confusion breeds exactly the censorship controversies SCPS experienced this week. Nationwide, SPLC has seen yearbooks censored because they included timelines of world events, including the death of George Floyd, or because they included images of students wearing “Make America Great Again” clothing. We have seen school newspapers censored because they discussed curriculum changes, or graffiti visible on campus, or misconduct by school officials. Students have even reported censorship of articles about student media censorship. These situations are far too common, and entirely avoidable.
We agree wholeheartedly with Vice Chairman Sanchez’s words that “The greatest gift that we could give to our students is for them to be able to communicate and speak … We should be able to voice our concerns, and we shouldn’t have anybody take that right away from us.” But the current SCPS policy does not protect that right. While the Lyman High School students were able to galvanize incredible public support, it should not take widespread outrage on social media, coverage in national media, and money spent from board members’ own pockets to ensure that SCPS student journalists have the ability to report honestly and openly on the issues that matter to them.
Hazelwood, and the SCPS policy, is the bare minimum that a school can do to ensure student press freedom – there is much more that can and should be done. The enclosed model student media policy tracks what is the law in 15 states (and on the Governor’s desk in Hawaii, and which was considered this year by the Florida legislature as SB 1860. The model policy ensures that SCPS will follow the standard set in Tinker v. Des Moines rather than that set by Hazelwood, and provide clear guidance to all parties about what is, and is not, acceptable student media. The model policy protects student journalists, including yearbooks, from censorship except in certain specific circumstances proscribed by law including libel, slander, unwarranted invasions of privacy, and a clear and present danger of a material and substantial disruption.
We encourage the Seminole County School Board to continue to serve as a model for Florida – as your student journalists have done – and adopt this policy. We look forward to working with you in any way that we can. Thank you for your attention to this important matter, and for your strong support of Seminole County student journalists.
Advocacy and Organizing Director