Understanding Yearbook Censorship in the Time of COVID

The 2020-21 school year has been unlike any other, as many student journalists have worked remotely for the entirety of the year. In addition to reporting on racial injustice in our country and a contentious election and its volatile aftermath, we know student journalists have also faced the ongoing challenge of reporting both on and during a pandemic. 

The school year began in August with photos taken by a student at a Georgia high school that showed crowded school hallways, filled with unmasked students, being shared with news media. The images quickly went viral and subjected school officials to significant criticism for their failure to adequately protect the health of students and staff. School officials, however, seemed most upset with the student that took the photos. They suspended the student (later rescinded), thus setting the stage for ongoing attempts at schools across the country to protect their school’s image by clamping down on students attempting to accurately document what was happening at their schools during these unprecedented times. Since then, we have heard from student journalists across the country who have reported attempts by school officials to clamp down on their ability to document COVID-19 related news, including bans on photography, clamping down on information and data regarding COVID-19 testing and policies and changes to editorial policies that govern what can and can’t be published in student media.  

The sheer volume of things that have happened this school year is enough to overwhelm anyone. We realize there may be additional challenges that come in the form of school officials who prohibit you from publishing certain things in your publication. As well-meaning as they may be, a school official telling you what you can and cannot publish is still censorship. Here are a few things to know as you navigate publication decisions for your yearbook. 

What Constitutes Censorship:

Anytime someone who works for the school or school district, be it a principal or your adviser, prevents or attempts to prevent you from publishing content in the yearbook, there’s a problem. This can come in the form of a directive not to publish certain photographs or not to write certain stories, but it can also come in the form of cutting the budget to your yearbook or refusing to provide you with a means to distribute the yearbooks. 

What you need to know about the law

The Supreme Court’s 1988 decision in the case Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier defined the level of First Amendment protection public high school students working on school-sponsored publications are entitled to. Hazelwood is a case about a school newspaper, but the same standards apply for any school-sponsored publication, including a student yearbook. 

That case was a follow up to the landmark 1969 Supreme Court decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District. Together, these cases set the standards school officials must meet before they can legally censor student expression under the First Amendment. (State laws and regulations may provide additional protection.)    

Hazelwood says that in order for a school official to lawfully keep you from publishing something in your student publication, they have to assert and prove that there is a reasonable educational justification for the censorship. It isn’t a high bar to meet, but they do have to give you a reason that is something more than just protecting the school’s image, for instance. 

Read more about Hazelwood here

And here you can find some tips SPLC has put together for fighting censorship.


Q: Can the administration require us to cover a story in the yearbook?

Generally no. In addition to protecting one’s right to speak, the important flip-side to the First Amendment is that it also protects a person’s right not to speak, to remain silent. Schools cannot force students to publish an article, editorial or advertisement under their names with which they disagree. Only in the case of a glaring omission  — if the staff refuses to mention graduation or decides to omit the entire freshman class  —  might the school have a reasonable justification to step in. But in such rare instances, the student staff would have a right to demand that their names not be attached to such coverage

Q: Can we publish photos of crowded hallways at our school during COVID-19 depicting maskless students or teachers? 

A: Yes. It is long-established law that public school students have the right to engage in speech activities in school as long as their speech is lawful and non-disruptive. A photo such as this one, taken by a student at a public high school in Georgia in 2020 and published widely over the internet, is entirely lawful despite claims that it invaded student privacy. Students have no reasonable expectation of privacy while walking in a crowded school hallway and are generally fair game for student journalists. The same would be true for news photos taken in other clearly “public” areas of the school such as in a crowded lunchroom, gymnasiums or football fields during athletic events and most outdoor areas such as a student parking lot or school bus pickup area. Taking photos in private spaces (locker rooms, bathrooms, private offices, etc.) should not be done without prior permission from everyone who might be in the photo. Classrooms exist in a bit of gray zone and, except in cases where the photo is exceptionally newsworthy and obtaining prior consent cannot be reasonably accomplished in a timely manner, it is the SPLC’s recommendation that you generally err on the side of caution and obtain permission.

Here’s more information on that question if you’d like it. 

Q: Can we run a story about a student’s experience being tested for COVID-19? 

A: There is no problem with you writing a story about a student being tested for COVID-19, especially if the student has discussed the matter with their parents. Unlike something like an STD test, for example — which can carry a stigma in certain situations — there’s nothing  embarrassing or “shameful” about being tested for COVID-19. Indeed, getting tested if one believes they’ve been exposed is the honorable and brave thing to do these days.

If you wanted to be super safe, you could have the student sign a consent form.

Q: Can (and should) we publish the name of a student who tested positive for COVID-19?

A: This is an important question that many news organizations have started to ask. Publicly disclosing private and embarrassing facts about an individual can lead to an invasion of privacy claim. Revealing private and sensitive medical information about someone — without that person’s consent — generally falls into that category and should be avoided. That said, the primary defense to an invasion of privacy claim is newsworthiness and certainly a strong argument can be made at this time that alerting individuals that they may have been exposed to a potentially lethal disease is not only newsworthy but also essential to prevent further spread and to quash rumors and disinformation.

The first thing I’d do is approach the student and ask if he’s willing to talk. If the student consents, you’re safe to publish his name. If he doesn’t consent, I’d be reluctant to identify him unless there is some other editorial justification for doing so. For example, if the student held a position of particular significance (for example, he was a player on the school basketball team who might have spread it to those he played with) or if there was some other unique angle to the story that editorially justified publishing his name it would be worth further discussion, including talking it over with legal counsel.

Even if you don’t publish his name, you can safely publish the name of the dorm and other details about the case as long as they don’t lead to the student’s identity (or accidentally point to someone else.) You cannot be successfully sued for public disclosure invasion of privacy by someone if you’ve not identified them.

Other Related Resources: