Yearbooks not so unlike newspapers

Senior year of high school is the time to reflect on experiences and memories with classmates, and Breanne Veney wanted to do just that. Her senior memories yearbook page was filled with recollections of her time at Cuba Rushford High School in Cuba, N.Y.

Veney used the phrases "we're so black and everyone hates on us for it," "my white girlfriend," and "is it 'cause I'm black?" in her page to signify inside jokes with friends. However, when Veney's yearbook page came across Principal Carrie Bold's desk for approval, Veney was asked to change her words. Bold crossed out the word "white" and circled "black" both times it was used on the page.

"Please try to reword this," Bold wrote on Veney's page. "You may not be offended by this, but others who may read this may be!!"

Veney said she did not change her senior memories because she wants them to be her own words.

"It bothers me because I would like to put in the memories that I have had with my friends over the years," Veney said. "I don't want to put the principal's words in my memories."

The student newspaper focuses on public events and issues. The literary magazine centers on young artists and poets. The student yearbook, however, encompasses every facet of the high school community. Although each of these publications differs in content, all of them typically fall under the same student publication policy set by school administrators. The role of the yearbook, however, can be a confusing one for teachers and administrators, who sometimes fail to treat the yearbook as deserving the same level of journalistic independence as a newspaper.

"Both student yearbooks and newspapers exist as forums for expressive activity, albeit with slightly different editorial missions and goals," said Mike Hiestand, legal consultant for the Student Press Law Center. "Absent some language that specifically limits a 'student publication' or 'student media' policy to only newspapers, a student yearbook certainly falls into either of those fairly broad categories."

Veney and her mother took the issue to the school board. They received a letter from the board president that said based on school policy and legal advice, Veney's page needed to be changed to be in the yearbook.

The district policy, adopted June 1995, states "the district may exercise editorial control over the style and content of student speech in school-sponsored publications and activities that are part of the educational curriculum."

Hiestand said he believes the district policy is unconstitutional.

"Essentially, it says that the school is giving itself an unlimited license to censor," Hiestand said.

Christopher Trapp, legal counsel for Cuba-Rushford Central School District, said he does not consider asking Veney to alter her senior page to be censorship.

"I would consider this, when you are dealing with language, which can be deemed offensive, more of a liability problem for the school district and the publisher of it," Trapp said.

But Hiestand said altering a student's word choice because the words are "deemed offensive" is a classic case of censorship.

John Bowen, board member of the Journalism Education Association, said that censoring the content of the yearbook is like controlling the content of a school newspaper.

"They are both student publications and if they are set up where students are supposed to be making decisions and learning from what they are doing, censorship of one is no different than censorship of the other," Bowen said.

As was the case at Cuba-Rushford, students at West Fargo High School in West Fargo, N.D., found themselves in a debate with their school over whether an administrator's order to change the editorial content of a yearbook was in fact "censorship" at all.

Principal Gary Clark said he did not believe he was engaging in censorship when he overruled student editors' decision to exclude coverage of a sister school, West Fargo Community High School, from the yearbook. Rather, he called it "a matter of equity."

Abby Paul, editor-in-chief of the West Fargo yearbook, said the initial decision not to include the sister school in the publication was "so that administrators would not be able to dictate any future coverage."

The yearbook staff was willing to take lower grades in the class to keep their book exclusive to West Fargo High School students, but after discussions, the staff agreed to include the Community High School students.

Paul said she spoke with Clark about future censorship and that he had "no desire to control any other coverage."

Editors of the West Fargo High School student newspaper, the Packer, said that on several occasions, administrators have been critical of their content.

"I think the phrase that our principal used the most is that we give bad PR for our school,'" said Megan McDougall, an editor of the Packer, "which is what bothers us the most, because as a public forum, we do not feel like we need to be a PR tool for our school."

Several opinion columns have sparked critical comments from school officials over the past few years, McDougall said.

McDougall added that until this incident with the yearbook, the yearbook staff "had it easy."

"Until this year, nobody had a problem with yearbook. It was always the newspaper that was 'causing trouble' or 'trying to put people in bad light,'" McDougall said.

Currently, West Fargo High School has no written policy regarding control of student publications, but Clark said he is "open to discussing" the idea of creating one.

Jeremy Murphy, West Fargo High School publications adviser who oversees the newspaper and yearbook, said he teaches his students that the yearbook and newspaper fall under the same laws, but he said the administration sees it differently.

"They would never force content upon the newspaper staff because they know they don't have that right," Murphy said. "However, they see the yearbook staff as having different rights."

Hiestand said that most school officials have difficulty viewing yearbooks as true journalism-based publications.

"I think part of the reason school officials may see the two as different is because of the changing role of yearbooks," Hiestand said.

"Most yearbooks of the past were not viewed as practicing real journalism because most didn't. That is no longer the case."

reports, Spring 2009