Yearbook editors overcome intimidation, censorship so they can ‘represent every student’

Sakura Honda (left) and Hannah Sawyer (right).
Sakura Honda (left) and Hannah Sawyer (right) working together in the classroom.

The Etruscan editors at Glenbrook South High School received an unexpected directive as they were finalizing their 2022-23 yearbook. Their school district’s attorneys claimed the editors were not legally allowed to publish any student’s chosen name or nickname, meaning they would have to change a spread featuring a transgender student, as well as redo their name fact-checking process, pushing their book back months in production.

Co-Editors-in-Chief Sakura Honda and Hannah Sawyer believed it was important to accurately represent every student at their school — located in Glenview, Illinois, just north of Chicago — so they resisted intimidation from school administrators. 

With their editorial independence guaranteed under the Illinois New Voices law and with support from the Student Press Law Center, Honda and Sawyer succeeded. The administration backed down and the student editors were able to publish their book. But now, in light of rising censorship across the country of chosen names and other LGBTQIA+ topics, they worry about the battles their successors and other student journalists across the country will have to fight next. 

Are you facing yearbook censorship or other threats to student press freedom? We’ve got your back.

District officials challenge The Etruscan’s editorial independence

For this year’s book, The Etruscan staff put together a two-page spread about expression that featured, among other students, a transgender female student. The editors received the student’s consent to publish her photo and name, which included having her sign a consent form. They also went to the student’s guidance counselor, as they do for every student in the book as part of their thorough fact-checking process, to confirm her name was accurate.

The final expression spread in The Etruscan yearbook.
The final expression spread published in The Etruscan.

“We wanted to make sure we were doing everything in our power to make sure that she felt safe and supported with whatever was being put in the yearbook under her name,” Sawyer said.

“What we didn’t know was behind the scenes, that question that we had forwarded to the counselor had been pushed up the administrative ladder and eventually it made its way up to the district lawyers,” Sawyer continued. “And then lawyers handed down a directive to us saying, you can’t use any nicknames.”

This policy would impact more than the spread about expression, as many students chose to use nicknames or anglicized names throughout the book. Re-checking and changing every student’s name throughout the entire book would have been incredibly time-consuming, pushing back production by months.

“Our number one goal, always as a staff and as a yearbook, is to represent every student equally and to respect our peers in the way that they want to be represented in the yearbook. So if we had a yearbook that wasn’t able to do that, we really didn’t feel comfortable publishing it.”

–– Sakura Honda

Administrators provided a number of differing rationales for the directive, including claiming they could control The Etruscan’s content because the book is a “school record” under the Illinois School Student Records Act.

At one point, the principal called Honda to the office during her AP physics practice exam and pulled Sawyer to the office before she began her AP World History practice exam. Honda and Sawyer said the principal “interrogated” each student individually for at least an hour each, pressing them on their decision to use students’ chosen names in their yearbook. 

“We didn’t come out of those meetings happy,” Sawyer said. “I came out on the verge of tears, I was mad. I was furious. I was terrified. Like every emotion all at once you can possibly imagine. And I remember…we met in the library and then we went upstairs and we cried in the yearbook room because we were just like we don’t know what to do. It was just beyond overwhelming.”

SPLC staff attorney Jonathan Gaston-Falk, who worked with Honda and Sawyer, said these tactics are unacceptable.

“When school administrators begin intimidating student journalists in response to the content they produce, students can find themselves wanting to completely give up regardless of the quality of their product,” Gaston-Falk said. “This chills student speech in a heavy-handed and disrespectful way, but of more fundamental importance at public schools, this behavior may violate the First Amendment rights of students.” 

Connecting with SPLC for guidance and resolving the dispute

Under the Illinois New Voices law, student journalists are solely responsible for content they publish in school-sponsored student media, including The Etruscan. Despite their administration’s claims to the contrary, Honda and Sawyer knew they were within their rights to publish nicknames and chosen names in their book, and they knew they needed to defend that right.

“We were at a point where we didn’t want to involve our adviser in the sense that under the New Voices law, there is no adviser protection clause,” Honda said. “We didn’t want to put our adviser at risk, and so we took the route where we felt like we could take this into our own hands. For us, that was contacting Jonathan.” 

Both editors said Gaston-Falk provided constant support and a variety of steps the students could take throughout the process of fighting their administration’s attempts to censor their book. 

Gaston-Falk met with the students at the spring National High School Journalism Convention. He explained Illinois’ New Voices law, assured the students they were within their rights, debunked the district’s arguments that there were laws prohibiting the editors from using nicknames and chosen names, and reviewed emails the students drafted to school board members defending their cause. 

“I can’t imagine having to go through this alone. I think having Sakura by my side made it so much easier, but also just knowing that we could always reach out to Jonathan if we ever needed any help. He was always there for us and so was the SPLC. I think that was just something that really helped us get through this entire process.” 

–– Hannah Sawyer

After about a week of persistent action from Honda and Sawyer, the principal invited them to a meeting that also included their adviser, the head of the teacher’s union and the vice principal of student activities. 

“In that meeting, the principal laid out, like, where they had gotten their student records argument and stuff and where they had been coming from,” Sawyer said. “At the end of that meeting, she was like, ‘We’re just gonna step back, you guys use the names you want to.’ They never really admitted that they were wrong.”

The students were able to publish the content as they intended. But Honda noted that the principal said she would provide a list for next year laying out the names and nicknames the Etruscan is allowed to print, leaving things uncertain and raising concern that the issue will crop up again for the incoming staff. 

“There’s not much that is left to do on our part, but I think the best thing that we can do right now is just prepare the editors-in-chief for next year to be able to fight this if it does come up again,” Sawyer said.

Honda (left) and Sawyer (right) at the 2022 JEA convention holding up their Pacemaker Award.
Honda (left) and Sawyer (right) at the 2023 National High School Journalism Convention holding up their Pacemaker Award. PHOTO COURTESY: SAKURA HONDA AND HANNAH SAWYER

Before publishing, the editors also let the student in their spread know about the issue that arose with the administration over her name. She ultimately asked them to take her testimonial out of the spread but to keep her chosen name in the other sections of the book where she was mentioned. Although the editors tweaked their spread, they knew they did the right thing. 

“We already had the proofs of the first layout and right before she asked us not to run the story, she took a picture of that layout because she said that she felt really validated and it was the first time that she was recognized…her story was recognized in the book that way,” Honda said. “She took a picture of it, and she seemed really happy.”

Sawyer agreed, adding that their fight against the school’s attempts to prohibit the publication of chosen names goes beyond just their yearbook or one single story because of how impactful it is to recognize someone’s identity. 

“It was about so much more than just us fighting it,” Sawyer said. “It was something we were doing for the entirety of the student body.”

What comes next for The Etruscan and other student media? 

The Etruscan staff is not the first student publication to face censorship or censorship threats for publishing sources’ chosen names and pronouns. SPLC has received a steady uptick of calls to its legal hotline from students reporting this form of censorship, coinciding with the growing number of anti-LGBTQIA+ bills up for consideration in state legislatures, many addressing education and youths. 

Sawyer acknowledged this reality, reinforcing why she believes it’s so important to stand up for student press freedom. 

“We’re really lucky to live in a state that has this protection for student journalists and is very supportive of free press rights. But there are a lot of states across this country that aren’t,” Sawyer said. “If you look at Florida nowadays, it’s terrifying and I can’t even imagine what student journalists are going through down there.”

Less than two months after Honda and Sawyer first contacted SPLC’s hotline, the SPLC legal team received another call from The Greyhound yearbook staff at Lyman High School in Florida about a similar issue. 

The Greyhound yearbook published a spread –– that their principal approved –– featuring LGBTQIA+ students and including definitions for a variety of gender and sexual identities. The staff then faced backlash from a small yet vocal minority, and the school’s superintendent responded by offering that students or parents who received a yearbook and do not approve of the spread may choose to either return the book for a full refund or exchange it for a reprinted book without the spread.

The spread highlighting LGBTQIA+ students published in The Greyhound.
The spread highlighting LGBTQIA+ students published in The Greyhound.

This is the second year in a row Greyhound students have had to defend their content against censorship threats because of spreads highlighting the LGBTQIA+ community. For their bravery defending their rights last year, Greyhound Editor-in-Chief Sara Ward and her staff were awarded SPLC’s 2022 High School Student Press Freedom Award.

“Our job as journalists and members of the yearbook staff is to provide coverage of the entire school and that includes all of the communities, including the LGBTQ+ community,” Ward told The Guardian

In another 2022 case in Nebraska, Northwest High School faces a lawsuit for shutting down its student newspaper, The Saga, after the staff published chosen names and pronouns and published two stories covering LGBTQIA+ issues.

Content featuring the LGBTQIA+ community in student publications is up against growing threats from parents, administrators and other school community members across the country. But Sawyer said that makes student press freedom even more important, and encouraged her fellow student journalists to push back against this kind of censorship.

“It’s happening all over. It’s important to remember that it’s not just you going through this,” Sawyer said. “There’s a system of so many other people across the country who have probably gone through this or some type of censorship. There are people out there who are willing to help you.”

How SPLC can help

Censorship –– especially surrounding LGBTQIA+ content –– is increasingly becoming a threat, and SPLC is committed to protecting student journalists’ First Amendment rights. 

“After hearing Jonathan’s talks and going to the SPLC website for the first time and looking at all these things that have happened in the past, it’s really reassuring knowing that you’re not the only one going through it even though you’ve probably never heard of it until you have experienced it.”

–– Sakura Honda

“At SPLC, our team has always helped student journalists combat intimidation and other forms of direct or indirect censorship and continues to support student journalists like Hannah and Sakura who bravely reject these tactics and stand up for their rights, no matter what,” Gaston-Falk said.

Matters surrounding chosen names and pronouns in student media can be very fact-specific, and the policy landscape is changing rapidly. We strongly encourage students and advisers to review our Chosen Names & Pronouns legal guide and keep it on hand. 

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