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.