Interview by Emily Hickey, Storytelling Intern at the Student Press Law Center. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Yearbooks document students’ lives and the world they’re living in, creating a time capsule for generations to come. When school administrations censor yearbooks, they rob students of the ability to tell their own stories.
Sara Ward, Editor-in-Chief of The Greyhound yearbook at Lyman High School in Florida, understands this firsthand. In spring 2022, the Seminole County School District superintendent canceled distribution of The Greyhound in May and demanded the staff cover with stickers a two-page spread reporting on a student-led walkout protesting Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Act, also known as the “Don’t Say Gay” law.
Students and community members united in a campaign to “#stopthestickers.” In a major victory for student press freedom, the Seminole County School Board voted unanimously to overturn the superintendent’s plan, instead placing small disclaimer stickers on the pages to clarify that the protest was not a school-sponsored event.
SPLC spoke with Sara about her experience with yearbook censorship and her advocacy for press freedom for yearbook staff.
Emily: Can you walk me through your experience with yearbook censorship last year, and how you and your classmates responded to it?
Sara: It started when we got a call from our yearbook adviser. She told us that she’d given our principal a copy of the yearbook as a gift. [Our principal] saw our coverage we did of the walkout of House Bill 1557, better known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. She said, “this could be controversial and we don’t want angry parents, so I’m going to send this up to my bosses and see what they say about it.”
We thought nothing would come of it. To this day, I don’t know what we did wrong. I’d do the exact same thing over; I would print that in a heartbeat. But the superintendent and the superintendent’s adviser had a problem with it. They said, “We’re going to cover up these pages.”
We decided to take it to our local news organizations to try to build community support, because we knew we were on the right side of this. From there, we also decided that we were going to attend the school board meeting that was happening that week.
I had my AP Language and Composition exam that morning, so I was sitting there, taking my exam, and thinking, “There’s so much that’s going on and I’m helpless for the next three hours while I’m sitting here and taking my exam.”
While we were driving to the Educational Support Center, I was writing what I wanted to say [to the school board]. I was the first to go out of the journalists. There were about 30 people there supporting us from the LBGTQ+ community. We also had journalists from other schools come and support us. The school board had no idea what was going on. They were the ones who motioned to put small disclaimer stickers [instead] saying [the walkout we covered] wasn’t school-sponsored. It was a unanimous vote.
On distribution day, we were still fighting with the superintendent’s attorney, because they were mad that we used language such as “Being gay is okay,” and “Love is love,” because it was an opinion statement. As a school board and a county, they said that they could not say that “Being gay is okay.”
So we had the superintendent’s adviser, who used to be our old principal, along with our new principal, in the closet, on the phone with the attorney while we were trying to distribute yearbooks. But we were not legally allowed to distribute them until we got a go-ahead from the attorney. We had hundreds of kids lining up in the hallway. We were exhausted at this point.
Eventually, we get the go-ahead to start distributing. We had the same disclaimer stickers, but we were going in and writing in quotation marks around “Love is love,” and “Being gay is okay.” We were stickering them onto the captions and sending them out all at the same time.
Emily: I imagine it would be hard to balance that with the daily life of being a high schooler. I know a lot happened in a short period of time, but as you look back now, what do you identify as some of the key factors that helped you succeed in your fight against censorship?
Sara: Definitely the Student Press Law Center. One of the first things we did was reach out to that hotline. They said [they needed] a student representative, and I stepped in. I had many phone calls with them about what our rights were and how to proceed.
Something that really helped us in the school board meeting was that we clearly stated that we were a student-led organization; we weren’t a county-led organization. Those were tips we received from the Student Press Law Center.
I’d also say the community support was really beneficial. It was power of numbers. If five people showed up to the school board meeting, it might not have been as powerful as the 30 people who showed up from both the journalistic community and the LGBTQ+ community.
Emily: Looking back now, what lessons have you’ve taken from this experience?
Sara: We’re definitely really careful about how we word things now. It’s not necessarily self-censorship, but it’s being careful with wording, because something I learned from this experience — as cliche as it sounds — is to expect the unexpected. Like I said before, I would print this exact same thing again with absolutely no changes.
Emily: With that in mind, how are you feeling as you approach distribution day this year?
Sara: A little bit of everything, to be honest. This year, we had our assistant principal come in and want to look at everything we’re doing, and I’m like, “That’s still censorship, guys!”
But in the end, we’re still under Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, and not under New Voices – which we’re still working on! (Editor’s Note: The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the 1988 Hazelwood case allowed for more widespread censorship of high school journalists than before. New Voices is an advocacy effort to pass state laws restoring the more protective Tinker standard. See more below)
So every time we send out a deadline, we put a PDF in a folder. Our principal just looked at it and said the yearbook looked great. But again — expect the unexpected. But we already sent him our LGBTQ+ spread, and he didn’t seem to have a problem with it, so we’re crossing our fingers.
Emily: I was watching your speech to the school board and, in that speech, you talked about looking back on their yearbooks in fifty years and seeing their high school experience reflected. Can you expand on why you think yearbooks are important as pieces of student journalism?
Sara: I’m a yearbook nerd, and I go to yearbook camps, and at one camp, we had Mike Simons, a yearbook adviser, speak to us. He asked us, “What is the most important day for a yearbook student?”
I raised my hand and said, “Distribution day.”
He said, “Wrong; it’s fifty years from now when someone opens the book and they go back and see their high school experiences.”
I’ve lived in the same place my whole life, and I have friends whose parents also went to Lyman High School. They’ll show me their yearbooks, and they’ll show me pictures of things specific to their time in high school. That’s something I’m glad wasn’t censored. Seeing that myself and hearing it from other adults looking back on their yearbooks really speaks to me. Our job as journalists is to have a full and fair representation of the community for that specific year.
Emily: As you look ahead into the long term, what do you hope the impact of your advocacy and this victory will be for your school and other schools around the country?
Sara: I really hope it inspires more people to stand up and get rid of the Hazelwood [restrictions]. There’s only so much that I can do because I graduate in a few months. I hope it gets other people motivated, other people in my county motivated, and other people across the state of Florida motivated to take action and have those tough conversations that you don’t necessarily want to have, but have to have.
Emily: On that note, what advice would you give to students who are facing similar challenges or advocating for New Voices legislation in their state?
Sara: As cliche as it sounds, don’t give up. If you’re on the right side of history, it’ll work in your favor. Keep pushing, keep persevering. And the most important thing I learned was to handle everything with respect and grace. If you get overly emotional or start getting aggressive with administration, they’re going to respect you less. Fight those battles in the most respectful way possible.
Emily: Is there anything you’d like to add about your experience or about press freedom for yearbook staff in general?
Sara: Something that I’ve noticed, especially as I’m about to graduate, is that you can’t do it by yourself. You need a team of people, you need the underclassmen who are going to carry it forward. It’s going to take longer than the year and a half that I’ve been working on this — it’s a process.
SPLC’s grassroots, student-led New Voices movement seeks to restore student press freedom in every state by overturning the Hazelwood standard. Learn more about New Voices and how you can advocate for change in your state, or contact SPLC advocacy and organizing director Hillary Davis (@email@example.com) if you have specific questions about student press freedom in your state or school district.
If you’re experiencing yearbook censorship or have more media law-related questions, contact SPLC’s free, confidential legal hotline immediately.