Two schools delay yearbooks


Florida A&M censorship similar to Kincaid case





Although censors of the college press traditionally target student newspapers, two college yearbooks were shelved this spring by administrators with objections to the books' contents. One of the yearbooks ultimately won its battle, while the other has yet to be circulated.

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In April, the staff of The Rattler at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee finally began to distribute the 2000-01 yearbook. "The Little Black Book," as it was titled, had been ready for distribution since December. Those plans changed on \nDec. 14 when Student Activities Director Ronald Joe told Tiffany Hayes, editor of the 2001-02 Rattler, not to distribute the book.

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Interim President Henry Lewis was unhappy with the silver cover – the school's colors are orange and green – as well as missing captions and 15 grammatical errors, Hayes said. But Holly McGee, editor of the 2000-01 book, said she thought the tone of her editor's note also played a role. In her note she questioned the unexplained disappearance of $10,000 from the yearbook's account.

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The incident came just one year after a federal appeals court ruled that administrators at Kentucky State University had violated students' First Amendment rights when they confiscated their yearbooks in 1994. Ironically, school officials in that case, Kincaid v. Gibson, had also objected to the book's cover and lack of captions.

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On Jan. 22, Joe and Lewis told Hayes the staff could distribute the yearbook after fixing the grammatical errors. It would have cost about $2,000 for the publisher to print stickers to place over the mistakes, but the administration was willing to pay only for the cost of labor for the yearbook staff to apply the stickers. Adding to the staff's difficulty was the fact that the yearbook office was located in a building that had become part of a construction zone, effectively barring students from the area.

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Hayes met again with Lewis on Jan. 30, when Lewis agreed the school would pay for the stickers. The school had still not found office space for the staff, however, which Hayes said hindered the process of making the corrections.

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Then on March 28, the administration abruptly changed its stance again, as Hayes received word that the yearbooks could be distributed in their original form after all. The administration did not say why it reversed its decision.

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"I'm not sure who authorized it," she said. "We have a new adviser right now [Henry Kirby] and [he] told me that we could pass out the books."

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Neither Kirby nor Lewis returned requests for comment.

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Hayes gave credit to the Student Press Law Center for the change of heart.

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"I'm positive that a lot of the reason that they're letting us do this is because of [the SPLC's] support," she said. "I know [administrators] talked to the general counsel of the school and I think he advised them to let us put this book out."

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While the yearbook staff at Florida A&M won its battle, students at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., are still waiting for their happy ending.

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Their saga stretches back to November, when administrators abruptly discontinued circulation of the 2000-01 Tower Clock after reportedly receiving complaints about its contents. The undistributed books remain in the custody of the administration as a 16-person committee, appointed by Provost Jane Fernandes, investigates the matter.

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The committee, which includes two students, will review the yearbook production process and make recommendations to Fernandes concerning its distribution, according to an e-mail from Fernandes.

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"In my role as provost of the university," Fernandes wrote in the e-mail, "I believe that I have a moral obligation to purposefully interfere with this activity that has caused harm to some students and denied [them] their freedom."

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The e-mail does not say what aspects of the book Fernandez found problematic and the provost would not elaborate when contacted by the Report. Yearbook pages posted on a Web site by an anonymous Gallaudet student contained photos of students dressed in costumes, engaged in romantic activities and drinking at parties.

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Editor Ryan Commerson, who graduated in December, estimated that about 100 books had been distributed before Dean of Student Affairs Carl Pramuk and campus security shut down Tower Clock operations on Nov. 15 by changing the locks on the yearbook office.

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For some Gallaudet students, the issue of student expression is particularly important since the private university is a school for the deaf.

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"There was a feeling of futility in the air," Commerson wrote via e-mail. "A majority of the students felt that there wasn't much they could do about it. You need to understand the dynamics of our experience as deaf people. We grew up 'hearing' that we couldn't do anything. So when we came to Gallaudet, the thought of actually standing up [seemed] pointless"


reports, Spring 2002