SPLC concerned about pattern of censorship threats over LGBTQIA+ content in FL yearbook

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For the second year in a row, The Greyhound staff at Lyman High School in Longwood, Florida, is facing censorship over an LGBTQIA+ spread in their yearbook. 

In 2022, administrators halted distribution of their book, ordering the yearbook staff to cover their reporting of a student walkout protesting the Parental Rights in Education Act (commonly known as the “Don’t Say Gay” law) with stickers. The students appealed to their school board and ultimately won, earning SPLC’s High School Student Press Freedom Award for their advocacy. 

Now, their 2022-23 yearbook is facing similar pushback over a spread featuring LGBTQIA+ students’ stories and including definitions for a variety of gender and sexual identities. 

Some individuals have complained to the school that they’re offended by the content and the district has responded by offering refunds or to reprint the book without the spread for Lyman parents or students who request either option. 

The Student Press Law Center is deeply concerned by the repeated attempts and threats to censor Lyman student journalists.

“The Greyhound staff was accurately and thoroughly reporting on the school community and culture at Lyman High School. Removing the spread from the yearbook is a clear violation of the staff’s student press freedom and it teaches the wrong lessons about leadership, journalism and the role of a free press in democracy,” SPLC Executive Director Gary Green said. 

Overriding the students’ legal and responsible coverage of the school community because of a vocal minority is wrong, and SPLC urges the school board to rescind this offer and stand by its student journalists.

– SPLC Executive Director Gary Green

Lyman Principal Michael J. Hunter reviewed and approved the content before the yearbook went to print, as directed under the district’s student media policy. 

When a small yet vocal minority of adults –– some of whom do not even have students in Seminole County Public Schools –– saw the printed book and first expressed outrage over the spread, the district and principal originally stood firm, saying the content did not violate district policy.

SPLC applauded the principal in a May 26 letter for supporting the student journalists.

“Student media is about telling the stories of the student body, in all its forms, and learning the power and impact of journalism,” Green wrote in the letter. “Many student journalists are censored in deference to community backlash, and they never learn how to manage or rebound from criticism. The Greyhound staff is lucky to learn these lessons with your support, and they are more prepared for the post-school world because you have trusted them. This is what true leadership — and a real-life civics education lesson — looks like, and we hope many other schools will follow your example.”

The letter also called on the district to eliminate the burdensome and overbroad prior review policy, and SPLC offered to work with administrators on that effort.

As opponents became more vocal, however, district officials reversed course and chose censorship over the civics lesson. In an email to Lyman parents, Seminole County Public Schools Superintendent Serita Beamon offered that students or parents who received a yearbook and did not approve of the LGBTQIA+ spread could either return the book for a full refund or exchange it for a reprinted book without the spread.

The Greyhound staff members defended their work and expressed concerns that any refund or reprinting costs may come from student-raised funds instead of the district’s pockets. 

At a four-hour-long school board meeting June 6, more than 50 people signed up to speak on the subject. Student journalists, parents and other supporters defended The Greyhound and the LGBTQIA+ spread, urging the board to rescind their offer to refund or reprint the books and stand by their student’s work. Opponents objected to what they deemed content too mature for teenagers.

“It was intense and intimidating,” 2022-23 Greyhound Editor-in-Chief Sara Ward said about her experience at the meeting. “However, we’re thrilled with the overall support we got from the vast majority in the room. It was overall validating that we’re covering what matters in our community.”

The district is continuing to review the matter and students and parents who want a refund or reprint have until June 29 to submit their requests. 

Another school board meeting is scheduled for June 20, though the yearbook issue or the student media policy is not on the public agenda.

Nationwide, our staff attorneys have fielded a growing number of calls to SPLC’s free legal hotline from student journalists facing censorship over their coverage of the LGBTQIA+ community. 

Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Act bans “classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity.” On its face, it does not prohibit lawful discussion of such topics by students working on student-edited media and any attempt by schools to enforce the law against high school student journalists seeking to cover the LGBTQIA+ community could raise serious First Amendment concerns.

SPLC will continue supporting The Greyhound and any other student journalists facing censorship across the country. Each act or threat of censorship reinforces the need for New Voices legislation in Florida and elsewhere to ensure student journalists make the editorial decisions for their student media.

SPLC is committed to protecting yearbook student journalists’ First Amendment rights. Matters surrounding chosen names and pronouns in student media can be very fact-specific, and the policy landscape is changing rapidly. We strongly encourage student journalists to review our Chosen Names & Pronouns legal guide and keep it on hand should they ever need it. 

We also strongly encourage student journalists to contact our free, confidential legal hotline for any questions you may have about using chosen names and pronouns in their publication.