Portrait of controversy

Yearbook staffs have seen their share of photo faux pas over the years. The most recent involves a Colorado high school student whose clothing was deemed inappropriate to publish. When it comes down to the threads, who has the right to say that photo has

Nicole Youngblood wasn’t in her 2002 high school yearbook. Neither were Ceara Sturgis and Kelli Davis. Each young woman wanted to wear a tuxedo instead of a drape for her senior portrait. As a result, their photos weren’t printed.

In 2004, Blake Douglass took his senior portrait with a shotgun and navy sportsman’s vest. An avid sports shooter, Douglass’ photo wasn’t in the yearbook because student editors deemed the portrait inappropriate.

“The thing you have to ask yourself is, what’s the problem?” said Douglass’ lawyer, Penny Dean. “The problem is somebody else doesn’t like it because it’s different.”

Sydney Spies of Colorado found herself in a similar situation this year, after submitting a photo in a short yellow skirt and black shawl around her chest, exposing her midriff. Spies’ photo was removed from the book after editors decided the photo was inappropriate.

Within limits, students in public schools have a First Amendment right to wear expressive clothing, jewelry and haircuts, and some have successfully sued their schools when forced to change their appearance. But there are no published court rulings addressing whether that right extends to a student’s choice of apparel for a yearbook portrait. And the issue is complicated by the fact that other students’ First Amendment rights – the editors’ – can override the individual students’ stylistic choices.

Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate for the Student Press Law Center, said the cases involving yearbook photos all have one thing in common: misaligned expectations.

“In general, everybody in these cases wants the same thing,” Goldstein said. “Sydney Spies wants to have a photo that encapsulates who she is and the yearbook editors want to have a book that encapsulates what the school is. Douglass wanted a photo that encapsulated his love of sports shooting and the yearbook editor’s wanted a photo that captured their students the way they were.”

Goldstein said in these situations, things didn’t have to get hostile. Spies protested the yearbook, taking her story to the TODAY Show. Douglass chose to have “censored” written where his photograph was placed. Every case but Spies’ resulted in a lawsuit.

“It was about people having different ideas of how to accomplish the same goal and when everybody wants the same goal, you should be able to sit down and find a way to compromise and reach it,” Goldstein said.

Portrait problems

Douglass lost his case in 2005. Dean said as a result of Douglass’ photo, the school board implemented a policy during the case addressing the use of props. In the end, Douglass wasn’t in the yearbook, but he printed sticky-sided photos for his friends to stick in their books.

Sydney Spies became an overnight celebrity, using the momentum to place pressure on her school’s yearbook editorial board.

Spies submitted her photo Dec. 2. As editorial board member Brian Jaramillo flipped though the different portraits to decide on a layout, he said the photo immediately caught his attention.

“It kind of shocked me, which is when I told the other editors,” Jaramillo said. “We started to discuss the photo and worry about how people in the community would view the photo.”

Spies herself has been on the yearbook staff for four years and said adviser Tammy Schreiner spoke with her right before Christmas about the photo.

“I said, ‘are you sure you want to put this photo in here?’ She said she wanted to make a statement to the administration,” Schreiner said.

Spies was told her photo was inappropriate for the yearbook but Spies disagrees.

“I don’t think it’s too provocative,” Spies said. “You see more when you go to the beach and I know there’s been worse pictures in the yearbook that this one.”

Goldstein said student editors always have the last say when determining book content. As a result, editors can reject a photo because they think it’s inappropriate.

“They can reject your photo because they don’t like that there’s a grin in it,” Goldstein said. “They can reject your photo because they don’t like the photo. They can reject your photo because they think you’re too sexy.”

Regardless, Goldstein said editors should have standards and adhere to those standards. He said editors should be specific about why they reject a photograph.

“Yearbook photographs are sort of uniquely likely to become a pingpong game when you reject someone’s photograph,” Goldstein said. “They’ll come back at you with another photograph that probably also won’t meet your standards. You can shorten that game as much as possible by being as clear as possible about what it is you expect in photos up --front.”

A pingpong game is exactly what developed between Spies and Durango High School’s yearbook, the Toltec.


“We decided the photo was inappropriate and that’s not what our yearbook (is),” Jaramillo said. “The student body, for the most part, agreed with the editorial staff on their decision. Not only did we think it was inappropriate but so did the senior class.”

Both Jaramillo and Schreiner said the administration had nothing to do with the decision concerning Spies’ photos. Schreiner said she had to tell the principal to stay away from the situation and let the students handle it.

Toltec’s editorial board gave Spies a “Plan B,” allowing her to run photos in the senior ad portion of the book. Spies jumped at the chance, buying a full-page ad. On the ad: her senior portrait covering the full page.

“We didn’t expect her to run the photo full-page,” Jaramillo said. “We told her she could run her ad, but she had to mix her photo with other photos or submit a different senior portrait.”

Spies submitted a second photo that was also rejected by the board. In the end, Spies pulled her photos and ad from the book. Spies’ mugshot from her student ID is being used instead.

Goldstein said the tug-of-war could have been shortened if the board’s explanation for rejecting the photo was more detailed.

“Everybody understands the concept of a portrait shot,” Goldstein said. “Not everybody has the same concept of sexy... I want to emphasize the editors are within their right to reject those photographs without those specific explanations but you should expect if you don’t have the level of specificity, you’re going to hear about it.”

Goldstein said ultimately, student editors have the final say over content in the yearbook. To minimize miscommunication, student editors should have a policy or clear set of standards that is known to all students and his or her photographer.

Portrait censorship

Ceara Sturgis’ senior portrait wasn’t rejected by yearbook editors but by administrators. Wesson Attendance Center seniors traditionally wore drapes and tuxes for their portraits. Feeling “uncomfortable” in the drape, Sturgis wore the tux.

As a result, Sturgis was told her photo would not appear in the yearbook because it violated school policy. Sturgis filed a discrimination lawsuit, “on the basis of sex and on the basis of sex stereotypes,” in August 2010.

In December 2011, Sturgis’ photo was displayed alongside her classmates’ in the Wesson Attendance Center library, part of a settlement Sturgis reached with Copiah County School District.

“I am thrilled that my photo will join my classmates on the wall of our school library,” said Sturgis in an ACLU press release. “It’s important that nobody else will be forced to wear something that doesn’t reflect who they are.”

As a result of the suit, the district implemented a new portrait policy that all students will wear caps and gowns in senior portraits.

“Hopefully no other students will be excluded from this important rite of passage simply for expressing themselves,” said Bear Atwood, legal director of the ACLU of Mississippi, in the press release. “Copiah County School District has done the right thing by changing the yearbook policy so no students have to feel as if they’re out of place.”

Goldstein said an administrator who wants to censor a photo has to satisfy the applicable legal standard for the yearbook, regardless of whether the content is provided by editors or a third party.

“So, in your typical Hazelwood yearbook, you’re going to have to have some legitimate educational concern for censoring that content,” Goldstein said.

Public school administrations can’t spike a photo just for the sake of censoring or because it’s not traditional for a girl to wear a tux, Goldstein said.

McKinney High School adviser Lori Oglesbee said when deciding if a student’s photo is appropriate, the editorial staff at McKinney discusses the clothing choices as it relates to the student’s personality and coordinates with the publications policy.

McKinney High was impelled to revisit its policy for a very unexpected reason.

In 2008, students at the Texas school received their books to find that, in a few portraits, female heads had been edited onto male bodies and vice versa. The yearbook photographer, Lifetouch Inc., received instructions to ensure that the photos had a uniform appearance. Those that didn’t were “assigned” new torsos.  

Oglesbee said as a result, the staff implemented a new photo policy. Oglesbee said her students have what they call the “Ron Pitt Rule,” named after a former editor.

“If it improves the life of one student or makes our school a better place, it’s worth the risk no matter what,” Oglesbee said. “You have a standard there, is it worth pushing?”

Student decision

Schreiner said it’s ironic her students in Durango, Colo., decided not to run Spies’ photo because they had the legal option to run the portrait. Colorado is one of seven states with a heightened level of legally protected press freedom in student publications.

“They knew they could run the photo but said, ‘OK, we don’t have to run it. We have the freedom to do what we see fit,’” Schreiner said.

Oglesbee said she can counsel students, but ultimately it’s [the] students’ book and their decision.

“In most states, yearbook is part of the curriculum and students having editorial decision is a class expectation,” Oglesbee said. “Just because you’re a student of the school doesn’t (necessarily) mean you have the right to put whatever you want in the book.”

Goldstein said to avoid confrontations student editorial boards should have a policy relating to portrait expectations. If the district hires a photographer and has a commercial relationship, then the district should also have a policy. But in the end, the buck must stop with yearbook editors.

“The only vision that really determines the outcome of what a yearbook is, is the vision of the editors,” Goldstein said.

By Emily Summars, SPLC staff writer

reports, Spring 2012