‘You can quote me on that’
Does a student’s freedom of expression extend to their high school yearbook?
BY ERIKA NORTON
With a nationwide increase in protests, marches and rallies, discussion around the First Amendment and what it protects has become a hot topic — but what freedoms do students have when it comes to their high school yearbook?
Recently, several incidents concerning yearbooks have grabbed the headlines. In West Milford, New Jersey, a student used her quote under her yearbook photo to mock her school’s dress code:
“I’m sorry, did my shoulders distract you from reading this quote?”
According to the student, the formal robes given to be worn in the graduation photos technically violated the school’s dress code, since the shoulders were exposed.
In West Milford, the quote was published in every yearbook.
But in other U.S. schools, students’ photos and quotes have been altered or removed.
At a high school in Monmouth County, New Jersey, a student wore a Donald Trump T-shirt in his yearbook photo, but when the yearbooks arrived, his photo was edited to remove the Trump logo.
Other students’ attire, yearbook comments and quotes were also altered, all of which included references to or support for Trump, according to a letter from the superintendent on the school’s website. The district launched an investigation into whether these changes were instances of censorship and whether any student’s First Amendment rights were violated.
The school yearbook advisor was later suspended, according to published reports, and the yearbooks were reprinted.
Most recently in Missouri, quotes from two gay high school students were removed from the yearbook. After public outcry, the district issued this statement: “In an effort to protect our students, quotes that could potentially offend another student or groups of students are not published.
“Doing so in this case had the unintentional consequence of offending the very students the practice was designed to protect,” the statement later continued. “We sincerely apologize to those students.”
In Newton, NJ, Superintendent G. Kennedy Greene said that students certainly have First Amendment rights, but when it comes to the yearbook, their quotes or written contributions should be within the guidelines of what the district allows for regular speech in school. Written contributions to the yearbook are also reviewed by the advisor and the yearbook staff.
“We’re looking for a sense of decency,” Greene said. “It’s not to preclude people from having political opinions.”
In terms of attire, there is no specific policy with regard to the yearbook itself, according to Greene, so it’s the same as the school dress code.
As far as he knows, the Newton district has not had any specific incident regarding the yearbook, but any questions about content are discussed between the yearbook staff and the advisor.
Other school districts specifically address the yearbook within their school policies.
In the Monroe-Woodbury school district, the yearbook is specifically delineated as a “school sponsored publication.” The board policy reads:
“The District reserves the right to exercise editorial control, which includes pre-publication review and restraint in an effort to insure that.... the views of the speaker are not erroneously attributed to the schools, if, for example, the speech is... biased, prejudiced, vulgar or profane."
M-W Superintendent Elise Rodriguez said that district hasn’t had any issues related to dress code, which is the same for the classroom and the yearbook. The policy states that student dress should also “not include items that are vulgar, obscene, libelous, or that denigrate others on account of race, color, weight, creed, national origin, ethnic group, religion, religious practice, gender (identity or expression), sex, sexual orientation, social class, or disability."
From Kindergarten through high school, Rodriguez said that M-W students are reminded of the district’s expectations.
When asked about what the Vernon Township School District allows when it comes to their yearbook, Superintendent Art DiBenedetto kept it short and sweet:
“Students do not leave their first amendment rights at the schoolhouse door,” DiBenedetto said. “As long as clothing or statements do not create a distraction from the educational process, we are reasonably liberal.
He said as far as the yearbook, a student wearing politically connected attire would be allowed to do so.
“Democracy is not an easy form of government,” DiBenedetto said, “but it is the best form of government.”