Endangered Species

Censorship threats leave yearbook staffs wondering which way to turn

Editor Farmer and her staff did not shy away from covering controversial issues like teen sex in their school yearbook. In fact, they created a two-page spread about it in the student life section, including a picture of a box of condoms and an unmade bed.

But Roane County High School principal Jody McLoud did not like the yearbook's depiction of reality. He thought the book was too controversial and misled readers. The result: Celia Simon, former Roane yearbook adviser has a new job.

The scenario at this central Tennessee school reflects what some believe is a trend throughout the country. Yearbook staffs are increasingly covering controversial issues, and administrators are trying to find ways to stop them.

As a result, yearbook advisers, perhaps even more so than their newspaper counterparts, are seeing their jobs threatened because of what administrators and parents call "inappropriate" coverage in school yearbooks.

"Yearbooks are doing a much better job than they used to do of reporting the total picture," said Ann Visser, yearbook adviser at Pella Community High School in Iowa. "[Yearbooks are] permanent, more likely to be read 20 years from now. The reaction is [parents and administrators] don't want their kids to look back and remember that 75 percent of the senior class drank. I think definitely it's because it is a more permanent publication."

Advisers are left with a dilemma. Should they encourage their students to report what high school life is like and risk facing consequences from administrators? Or do they focus on news that will put the school in a positive light?

Janet Bell decided her class would cover both the good and the not so good.

Bell, the yearbook adviser at Central Regional High School in Berkeley Township, N.J., and her students devoted two pages of the yearbook to students who had tattoos and body piercings. The spread contained seven photographs of students and their piercings and tattoos and a small story discussing body art's growing popularity. Those two pages never made it to the printer. School officials censored them, saying the photographs would make the school look bad. Bell's contract as adviser also was not renewed.

"The right of free speech and free expression in public schools pursuant to the First Amendment are not the same as the rights of adults in public settings," the school board said in a statement.

Some yearbook experts attribute the censorship to administrators' fear that the yearbook will go unchecked. Because the yearbook is more permanent than a newspaper, high school officials may be overly cautious about what goes down as history for their schools, said Laura Widmer, a college yearbook and newspaper adviser and former president of College Media Advisers.

"I just think administrators see a difference with age," Widmer said. "They maybe feel threatened by the maturity of a 14- to 18-year-old in what would be published in a book that administrators tend to see more as a public relations tool rather than a journalistic publication. I think that's the big difference between high school and college. Freedom of expression many times frightens high school administrators, and they see the yearbook as permanent and as an image builder for their school so any negative press-any negative image-they tend to want to censor."

Most high school free-press advocates say the best yearbooks record all the events of the past year-not just the good ones.

H.L. Hall, a retired high school yearbook adviser and current president of the Journalism Education Association, said yearbook students would not be doing their jobs if they did not get their hands dirty by covering uncomfortable topics.

"[The yearbook is] a history book, and you should report the history," Hall said. "I think if books are really doing that, then they are getting involved in more controversial and sensitive topics. ... The best yearbooks out there are making the attempt to really report the year as it happened-to be a history book.

"There are still a lot of administrators out there who want the yearbook to be a [public relations] tool and an outstanding yearbook is not strictly P.R.," Hall said.

Sometimes news content is not at the heart of the controversy. At Sylvan Hills High School in Little Rock, Ark., school administrators asked students to rip out a page of the yearbook that featured a full-page advertisement purchased by students. The advertisement showed several male students holding a Confederate flag emblazoned with the words "The South Will Rise Again."

Although the books that had already been distributed were not recalled, those students who had not yet received a book got one with the page ripped out. The yearbook adviser received a letter of reprimand.

John Bowen, JEA Scholastic Press Rights chairman, said high school yearbook censorship is nothing new and has its roots in the 1986 U.S. Supreme Court decision Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, in which the Court ruled that school administrators have the right to censor school-sponsored publications in certain circumstances.

"I'm not sure it's anything new, it is just the continued idea that administrators feel they have to put a good public image up and feel they can control their publications because they think Hazelwood said they could," Bowen said.

School administrators withheld all the yearbooks this year at Rancho Verde High School in Rancho Verde, Calif., because the books contained what they believed to be offensive and potentially libelous language.

The major area of concern for administrators was a photo in an advertisement page that a group of girls had bought earlier in the year. Under the photo of the group of friends was the word "slut." One of the girls complained to the principal when she first saw the yearbook.

Incoming editor Sutte Hem said the word was not directed at one girl individually but was a nickname the girls in the picture called each other.

However, the yearbook staff reluctantly agreed to place stickers over the words.

Another area the staff placed stickers over was a caption for a picture in the sports section. The caption read: "We'd kick @$$ ... who knew."

While Hem admitted the symbols were a way of getting around writing the actual words, yearbook adviser Gary Hubbling said the administration made a big deal out of nothing.

Hem said the thought of censoring their own publication was hard to deal with, but once the staff realized they could not stop it, they decided to help.

"We were like, 'No, we don't want to do it, that's stupid-that is like a slap in the face for us,'" Hem said. "Then [administrators] came and talked to us and we talked to other students. So we were like, 'It's our yearbook, and yeah, we don't like the fact that you are censoring it, but we'd rather do it and know what we're doing than have someone else do it.'"

Hubbling said he thought school officials were hasty in their judgment to censor the annuals.

"I think our administration and district office handled this whole thing atrociously," Hubbling said. "I think their reactions to the yearbook were knee-jerk ones, having their roots in the district's attempts to post the Ten Commandments in all of our schools last winter.

"I hear that a review panel of administrators, parents, students and teachers will be formed to look at the yearbook before it goes to press in the future," Hubbling said. "I don't think I can work under those restrictions."

Review panels are just one of the ways school districts can influence what goes in a school-sponsored publication. Visser, a former JEA secretary, said she has seen administrators' perceptions change with time and is uncertain what lies ahead for high school journalists.

"As an adviser of almost 20 years, I wonder what the future will hold," Visser said. "I'd like to think that our readers are getting more sophisticated and are more accepting of the truth, but I wonder if we're not going in the opposite direction. That scares me sometimes because I think when we quit telling the entire story then we become public relations pieces rather than journalistic pieces."

Many high school press experts say the key to changing the future is through education. Hall said yearbook staffs and advisers have a duty to talk with their administrators and explain the importance of a free high school press.

"[The yearbook] is a history book for the school," Hall said. "That's the purpose of a yearbook to begin with. [If you] record history and you leave some history out then you're not really being honest with your readers-that's accuracy. You leave out facts, and you're not being accurate with your readers."

One former high school yearbook adviser said she taught her students to cover the history of the school year. But Judy Babb got so fed up with administrators' concerns about the yearbook being too negative that she left high school and became a college yearbook adviser.

Babb, who was a high school adviser for 26 years, said high school administrators and the high school media should work together and establish a relationship where they can work together instead of against each other.

"I think in many ways we went through a period where we were much more free and were able to cover a lot of things that were important to the students," Babb said. "But I think we've taken a step backwards. It is not unusual for a lot of [high school] administrators to feel that the student media are adversaries rather than somebody they can work with and they treat them that way. I think it's a lot more likely, especially on the yearbook side, that they are going to say that they want yearbooks that were like those in the 1950s."

Fall 2000, reports