SPLC fights Florida yearbook censorship and promotes improved school student media policies

Lyman High School students outside of the building where they would protest the yearbook censorship in front of the Seminole County School Board. PHOTO COURTESY: SARA WARD

When administrators from the Seminole County School District tried to censor content in The Greyhound yearbook at Lyman High School in May 2022, the student staff fought back — and won.

The Greyhound staff covered a student-led protest over a Florida law commonly referred to as the “Don’t Say Gay” law, but after the yearbook was printed, administrators halted distribution and ordered the staff to cover the spread with stickers.

Sara Ward, the rising editor-in-chief at the time, and her staff immediately contacted the Student Press Law Center for support and guidance, and within four days, they successfully began distributing their yearbooks.

Seminole County superintendent silences student voices

Some students at Lyman walked out of class in March 2022 to protest Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Act, also known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, and The Greyhound staff was there to cover it. It was a notable moment for the school community that year — and indeed, for all of Seminole County — and the staff documented it in a two-page spread.

Once the school district learned of the spread, though, the superintendent halted distribution of the yearbook and ordered the staff to cover it up with stickers — doing so moments before the staff was prepared to hand the books out to the student body. The staff knew this wasn’t right, and Ward contacted SPLC’s free legal hotline for help.

SPLC attorneys reviewed the spread in question to affirm that the students’ work was indeed not classified as unprotected speech (e.g., making sure it didn’t violate a student’s privacy or that there wasn’t something defamatory, etc.) and discussed the legal and practical strategies the students could use to fight the censorship.

“SPLC was very useful in letting us know what we could and could not do. It was good having the support of people who have the knowledge in this area because we had no idea what we were doing,” Ward said. “Having that extra support system to cheer you on and fight for your First Amendment rights was really helpful.”

When SPLC asked school administrators why they had decided to cover the spread — because the students’ reporting was substantial and factually correct, not warranting school officials’ interference — they gave conflicting explanations to defend the decision. 

SPLC and student press freedom advocates take action

Students and SPLC then took to social media. Supporters started tweeting out #StopTheStickers, which became a trending hashtag in Florida. SPLC also published the censored spread online and on social media to highlight the staff’s solid reporting and to give the silenced story visibility.  

After receiving wide-reaching support from the LGBTQIA+ community, journalists and other community members, The Greyhound staff attended the Seminole County School Board meeting and provided compelling testimony advocating for the board to allow the distribution of the yearbook as it was intended. 

The School Board voted 5-0 to overrule the superintendent’s decision to fully cover the spread. Instead, board members offered to personally pay for a small sticker that, instead of covering anything, would note that the walkout was not a school-sponsored event — one of the reasons given for the censorship. 

“The greatest gift that we could give our students is for them to be able to communicate and speak,” Board Vice Chair Abby Sanchez said. “We should be able to voice our concerns, and we shouldn’t have anybody take that right away from us.”

While the small stickers were a good enough result to resolve the matter, they were still unwarranted, as school officials’ censorship of The Greyhound was not in line with district policy from the start. 

What happens next? 

Following the decision and the successful distribution of The Greyhound, SPLC continued to follow up with the school board, urging the district to adopt a new and more comprehensive student media policy that would prevent future cases of censorship. 

On May 11, 2022, SPLC sent a letter to the board president providing a model district policy and offering to meet with school officials directly to help expedite the process.

Despite repeated follow-ups and further testimony from The Greyhound staff urging board members to acknowledge the need for a new student media policy, SPLC has not heard back from school officials.

“It is distressing that despite all the best efforts of students and the Student Press Law Center, the Seminole County School Board has chosen to ignore the wishes of their community and continue to deny student journalists the right to accurately and honestly memorialize their experiences,” said Hillary Davis, SPLC’s advocacy and organizing director. “A simple change to school board policy could prevent this from ever happening again, and we are disappointed that the school board has made clear that they will stop student censorship only when the community demands it.”

“Robust student media policies and state laws — like the New Voices laws in place in 17 states — will prevent such censorship from taking place, and SPLC stands with the students and community members who continue to fight for such measures.”

SPLC Advocacy and Organizing Director Hillary Davis

Since the initial censorship case, Ward continues to advocate for student press freedom in Florida, which includes encouraging other student advocates to stand up against censorship and for student press freedom. In November 2022, SPLC awarded Ward and The Greyhound the inaugural 2022 High School Student Press Freedom Award for her continued advocacy efforts.

Inspired by The Greyhound staff’s work, SPLC has since developed a School District Advocacy Toolkit For Student Press Freedom. This guide provides step-by-step instructions for students and others seeking to improve their school district’s student media policy.

Students are also taking those skills to state-level politics, advocating for state-level legislation that would protect student press freedom across the board. SPLC continues to work with advocates across Florida — and across the country — to push for student press freedom legislation that will codify protections for student media at the state level that all school districts would be compelled to follow.