SPLC warns Oregon district that yearbook censorship may violate New Voices law

Oregon’s New Voices law is clear: Student journalists determine the content of school-sponsored student media, except in narrowly defined circumstances. 

Yet more than 15 years after the law passed, Vale School District officials recently said they are overriding their students’ decisions and reprinting the 2022-23 Vale High School yearbook because it contained language that, in the superintendent’s words, “may elicit negative emotions.” 

The Student Press Law Center, along with the Journalism Education Association’s Scholastic Press Rights Committee, have warned the district in a letter that this act of censorship — and the district’s student free expression policy — may violate the New Voices law. 

Vale student journalists published their yearbook with a cover featuring a collage of words and phrases illustrating the book’s theme, “our small town feeling.” It includes words like “togetherness,” “peaceful” and “leadership,” but also words like “racism” and “inbred.” 

After the book was released, Vale Superintendent Alisha McBride wrote in a letter to the community that the yearbook “does not align with the District’s mission or values.” Therefore, the district will replace the book “with a new version that contains a revised cover,” and officials plan to revise the yearbook’s “protocols for approval” so as to “avoid controversial material in the future.” 

In a later story in The Malhuer Enterprise, McBride said the district was pulling the yearbook because the cover was defamatory, which — if true — is not protected student speech under the New Voices law or the district’s policy. 

But as we explain in our letter, defamation is a legal concept with specific requirements that do not appear to be met here based on publicly available information. “While school officials may disagree with a student journalist’s statements or feel they reflect poorly on the school, that alone does not constitute defamation.”

“We know that no VSD official intends to violate the law or the rights of student journalists,” the letter to McBride says. “Both of our organizations stand ready to speak with you about these issues, as well as to help educate your district officials about the law and your students about their rights.”

View the Letter

The Student Press Law Center (splc.org@splc) is an independent, nonpartisan 501(c)(3) nonprofit working at the intersection of education, journalism and the law to promote, support and defend the rights of student journalists and their advisers at the high school and college levels. Based in Washington, D.C., the Student Press Law Center provides information, training and legal assistance at no charge to student journalists and the educators who work with them.