Timeline Ripped Out of Arkansas Yearbook

When "the news" isn't just "the news."

NPR (“High School Is Accused Of Censorship As Officials Rip Out Yearbook Pages On The News“):

The theme of Bigelow High School’s 2020 – 2021 yearbook was The Roaring 20s. But it appears officials at the Arkansas school wanted the student record of the events of the tumultuous year to be a little less of a roar and more of a meow.

Before delivering the keepsakes to students earlier this month, school administrators ripped out a two-page spread depicting a timeline of events from the academic year. Among the high/lowlights included were the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, former President Donald Trump’s claims of a rigged election, the Jan. 6 insurrection, and the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is unclear exactly who was behind the decision to excise the pages from the student-designed yearbook, but East End School District Superintendent Heidi Wilson justified the move by citing “community backlash.”

Wilson did not reply to NPR’s requests for comment.

Meanwhile, some students and parents say it’s censorship.

Madison Johnston was in the class that produced the yearbook and was disappointed when she began to hear from other students about the changes after “a group of parents had complained about it being biased.”

The class had been diligent in its reporting, triple checking the spread and getting it OK’d before it was printed, she told Fox 16.

“They’re censoring something that is facts,” Johnston said.

The Student Press Law Center, a national organization that advocates for the press freedom rights of high school and college journalists, is calling on the superintendent to reprint and distribute the pages that were torn out. In a letter to Wilson, SPLC Executive Director Hadar Harris urged the superintendent to apologize to students, parents and the yearbook staff adviser who resigned following the controversy.

“We are very concerned about ensuring that they’re taking seriously the issue at hand in terms of what they did,” Harris told NPR.

“They ripped the pages out of the yearbook for no clear pedagogical purpose and on the basis of what they said was a community backlash. We don’t see any evidence of that community backlash,” she said, noting that Wilson has not responded to SPLC’s requests.

A freedom of information records request by the Arkansas Times for any evidence related to the so-called community backlash has gone nowhere, according to the newspaper.

“When asked if there were any emails, or perhaps a public meeting where people shared their opposition to the timeline, Wilson simply answered ‘no’ in an email and did not respond to further inquiries,” the paper reported earlier this week.

No one has apologized to her “because district officials don’t believe they did anything wrong,” according to the outlet.

Reflecting on her time as the yearbook adviser and a journalism teacher at the school, Walton said, “It was my favorite course to teach, and I was able to open kids’ eyes to the world around them. Bigelow is such a tiny, tiny community, and journalism taught them how to look at the world objectively, which I don’t think they get a lot of time at home.”

Alas, in our politically polarized environment, it is near impossible to “look at the world objectively.” The pages in question, reproduced above, are a rather anodyne description of major news events of the period between January 2020 and April 2021. But the very act of curation is a political choice.

Bigelow is a tiny town of 413 in Perry County, which voted for Trump more than three to one in the 2020 election. It is not at all surprising that parents would see multiple references to police shootings of “unarmed” blacks as biased. Ditto multiple, seemingly random, COVID milestones. Or the seating of a grand jury in one of the cases. Or the one of hundreds of mass shootings over that span that happened to be used by the press to demonstrate anti-Asian bias. There’s a point of view at work here and it’s not particularly subtle. And, I suspect, it was Walton’s point of view, not that of the students.

Now, it happens to be a point of view that I and nearly all OTB readers share. But this isn’t simply an objective recounting of the “news.”*

Do school officials have every right to censor the work of the students? They do indeed.

If the school has by policy or practice turned the school-sponsored publication into a public forum, or a place traditionally open to the free exchange of ideas, then the school has less authority to censor content. However, most school newspapers are not public forums, and because of a 1988 Supreme Court decision, school officials generally have broad leeway to censor school-sponsored publications.

In Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, the high court ruled that school officials can censor school-sponsored publications if their decision is “reasonably related to a legitimate pedagogical purpose.” This means school officials must show that they have a reasonable educational reason for censoring the material.

The high court gave several examples of material that could be censored based on a reasonable educational purpose, including material that is “ungrammatical, poorly written, inadequately researched, biased or prejudiced, vulgar or profane, or unsuitable for immature audiences.”

The court went so far as to say that under the Hazelwood standard, school officials could censor school-sponsored materials that would “associate the school with anything other than neutrality on matters of political controversy.”

All that said, l think school officials have badly mishandled the situation.

My guess is that nobody at the school above Walton reviewed the content. Given that it’s a high school yearbook for a tiny school in a tiny community rather than, say, a special issue of Time magazine, it would have been far more appropriate to chronicle how the crazy events of the year impacted the students. Even in Bigelow, I presume they dealt with school closures, remote learning, masking, and all the rest of the COVID countermeasures. Were there BLM protests or other direct impacts of all of the national incidents?

My youngest stepdaughter just graduated high school in June. Her graduating class was considerably larger than the entire town of Bigelow. We live in a very Democratic district in a blue state. And there wasn’t a spread like this in her yearbook.

But, having failed to direct the publication into something less controversial, it’s absurd for the school superintendent to swoop in after the fact and order pages cut out of already-printed yearbooks. It not only damages property that people have paid for but sends the message that the students on the yearbook staff did something wrong.

_______________________

*A Twitter acquaintance points out that the US assassinated Qasem Soleimani, risking war with Iran, four days before the timeline starts. That’s almost certainly more significant than most of the events captured.

FILED UNDER: Education, First Amendment, U.S. Constitution
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    You are making an awful lot of assumptions here James, and you know what that means.

    I could nit pick this piece to death, there is so much wrong in it, but instead I’m just going to say, “Do yourself a favor and delete it.”

    9
  2. Kathy says:

    Do you want Smith to lose his job at Minitrue?

    1
  3. steve says:

    Kids do rebel against their parents so this could have been driven by the kids. It would be a small group of them and those attracted to anything like journalism would likely lean left. If it had been done by kids who were firmly in the Trump camp then the timeline would have omitted all of the BLM stuff and black killings. It would have had references Hunter’s computer, CRT, trans people in women’s locker rooms, etc. I think the advisor let the kids down and should have steered them away from this whether or not it was their idea or hers/his.

    Steve

  4. Jen says:

    I saw this story and immediately wished that my yearbooks–all of them–had something similar.

    It’s too bad that a segment of the population is so threatened by reality.

    8
  5. Michael Reynolds says:

    The school superintendent should resign or be removed for failing to understand the first thing about education.

    6
  6. CSK says:

    If there’s a course in Current Events at this high school, it must be…unusual.

    6
  7. Stormy Dragon says:

    Madison Johnston was in the class that produced the yearbook and was disappointed when she began to hear from other students about the changes after “a group of parents had complained about it being biased.”

    Here’s my big question: how did this “group of parents” know the contents of the yearbook before distribution? Who made the decision to include them in the vetting process and how were they selected from the community?

    7
  8. Stormy Dragon says:

    @steve:

    Kids do rebel against their parents so this could have been driven by the kids.

    If your kid’s form of rebelling is argumentatively reading the news, you’re ridiculously lucky as a parent
    If you’re unable to handle that, you’re probably poisoning your relationship with your adult children.

    13
  9. Kathy says:

    @CSK:

    That must be Newspeak for “whitewashing in real time.”

    2
  10. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    If your kid’s form of rebelling is argumentatively reading the news, you’re ridiculously lucky as a parent

    That’s a description of my life. 24 year old with a 150 IQ, excellent debating skills and her own moral high horse, has moved back home, for a while at least. It seems I am directly responsible for climate change, systemic racism and a housing costs. It’s like having the entire OTB commentariat living with me, but you’re all in your 20’s and have way more energy than I do.

    12
  11. CSK says:

    @Michael Reynolds:
    Sounds like a recent dream I had, only minus the Danish royals.

    4
  12. Teve says:

    This is the kind of news story that reminds me of my Science Communication professor. She and I were having a chat about our mutual love of The New Yorker and how Tina Brown fucked it up so horribly for years. Someone asked her what news sources she read/watched and she said, (this is a paraphrase of a conversation 17 years ago) “None. I made a conscious decision many years ago to assiduously avoid all news. People think ‘news’ is the most important information, but it’s the least important. It’s virtually always worthless. ‘Polar Bear eats camper in Manitoba’. ‘Plane crash in Bolivia kills 19’. ‘Train catches fire in El Paso, 3 injured’ Did you know any of those people? Is any of that ever going to affect you? News is designed to inflame your emotions and when I quit it my mental health improved.”

    3
  13. Michael Reynolds says:

    @CSK:
    And we’ll never be royals (royals)
    It don’t run in our blood
    That kind of luxe just ain’t for us
    We crave a different kind of buzz

    2
  14. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Teve:

    I had a similar experience as a college freshman. A prof I was friendly with surprised me when he told me his source of news was one of the evening network broadcasts and glancing at the headlines if he came across a newspaper on campus. He went on to explain that education and life experience would allow me one day to fill in the blanks. He was right, though I do peruse the Times and check out other sources, mostly though for context and analysis rather than the reporting.

    1
  15. Raoul says:

    From my POV that timeline looks pretty good-though too many COVID-19 entries, forgot about that California fire that killed so many. Interestingly, not a word about Afghanistan. My question is- what was omitted that should have entered.

    1
  16. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Michael Reynolds: You’ve got that exactly backwards. In addition, to “those who can do, those who can’t teach, and those who can’t teach teach teachers,” there’s also those who can’t manage become administrators. The fact that the supe is incompetent may be exactly the reason the board chose her. I’ve worked in more than one education system where the job of the “leaders” is simply and solely to approve the actions of the trustees/school board.

    2
  17. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Michael Reynolds: I should be so lucky. (and I am very lucky to have the relationships I have with my sons)(it’s just that one is in NOLA)

  18. Gustopher says:

    A Twitter acquaintance points out that the US assassinated Qasem Soleimani, risking war with Iran, four days before the timeline starts. That’s almost certainly more significant than most of the events captured.

    Given that nothing really came of it, I wonder which events that is more important than.

    I also wonder what a right wing history of the year would look like. Antifa riots in Portland, Anarchist zone in Seattle, Clinton Associate Harvey Weinstein found dead…

  19. de stijl says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    It takes a Kiwi (or some sort of outsider) to properly criticize British royalty fascination. It’s toxic. And least the aspects of what it looks like from the outside. Fetishism of royalty is fucking weird. That dude / dudette is no better than me and I am smarter. Birthright is fucking moronic.

    It takes an insider to cut the hamstring.

    God Save The Queen. We mean it, man. John Lydon was a genius.

  20. de stijl says:

    My first or second day on my first real office job my boss came by for the informal “welcome aboard” spiel. I was tasked with de-duping offsite storage records rationally. Think Iron Mountain stuff. My first “real” job.

    I was wearing headphones.

    She tapped my shoulder to get my attention.

    Then she did a bad manager move. Asked me what I was listening to. I was young and scared so I answered truthfully.

    “The Sex Pistols, ma’am.” I knew it would have repercussions, but she asked and I decided to tell the truth. Afterall, they gave me a job and a paycheck. Fuck it. Tell the truth.

    She had inadvertantly backed me into a corner I had no escape from. Bad move on her part. Not a smart move. Give folks an easy out. Mgmt 101.

    Two years later on I was her peer in the pecking order.

    I later found out she was a nobody and she managed an essential but unsexy group. We were cogs.