School Yearbooks as Free Speech
By: April Dawkins
Richmond County Schools made national news this month because of a decision made at the Richmond Early College High School (REaCH) to recall and/or not distribute the school yearbook after “inappropriate quotes” were discovered by the school’s principal Tonya Waddell. I won’t go into the progression of events; you can do that by viewing any of these articles from the local newspaper:
I’ll start this blog post with a disclosure: my hometown is in Richmond County, North Carolina. I grew up there, and I lived there until 2007. My family still lives there. It isn’t perfect, but it’s a good place filled with people trying to do the right thing and provide a quality education for students. I should know; I worked for the school system as a high school librarian at Richmond Senior High School from 2000 to 2007 and am a product of the Richmond County School System.
It’s not the first time school yearbooks have been controversial in the county. When I was a student in junior high, the yearbook had several comments marked out by the administration with black magic markers. The school system has a habit of trying to avoid controversy.
Looking at pictures from my own parents’ yearbooks from the late 1960s, I see very few African American students. The county did not have one school system back then. Each town had its own set of public schools. And yes, there were separate black schools.
Finally, in the early 1970s the schools consolidated into one school system and the decision was made to close the black high schools and build one large high school for all students in the county: Richmond Senior High School. It opened in 1973.
This was the county’s answer to the requirement to integrate. The school maintained racial quotes for the student government – the Senate – through the 1990s. The Senate, made up of 18 elected seniors, was required to have 12 white students and 6 black students. What did you do if you weren’t one of those categories? I don’t know. But I was on the Senate in 1988-1989.
From 1973 until 2007, Richmond Senior was the only high school in the county. In 2007, the Early College opened on the Richmond Community College Campus. North Carolina has more than 65 Early College High Schools. Each of these is a partnership between the local school system and a community college or university. The school is usually housed on the campus of the partner college. The purpose of these schools of choice is to “recruit and serve students who would not typically get an opportunity to go to college or who would otherwise have dropped out of school (first generation college-going students, underachieving students and low-income and minority students).”
The decision to censor the quotes students included in the yearbook is particularly troubling when you look at REaCH’s own vision statement:
Richmond Early College High School (RECHS) will provide a school climate enabling students to feel free to accept and express ideas without fear or prejudice. Students will communicate openly with not only other students, but also with the staff. This open communication will foster positive relationships.
The decision to censor the yearbooks seems contrary to the school’s own vision about its climate where student should “feel free to accept and express ideas without fear or prejudice.”
Without knowing all of the “inappropriate quotes” as mentioned in the school’s public statement, it is difficult to judge. We only have one quote that has been identified: “build that wall.” While this may be a controversial choice for a quote, it is still that student’s choice. If this school and school system truly believes in preparing students to interact with others in a global community, it needs to prepare them to stand up for and defend their own and others right to free speech, even when it is speech they might condemn.
I suggest that all school administrators need to review the First Amendment protections afforded to students and student publications. The Newseum Institute has excellent resources on the topic, particularly their discussion about K-12 newspapers and yearbooks.
The decision to pull all of the yearbooks smacks of viewpoint discrimination. Justice William Brennan in his dissent on Hazelwood v Kuhlmeier warned that the decision to protect students from controversial or sensitive topics is actually “camouflage” for viewpoint discrimination: “Even in its capacity as educator the State may not assume an Orwellian ‘guardianship of the public mind.’”
April Dawkins is a doctoral candidate in the School of Library and Information Science at the University of South Carolina. Her research focus for her doctoral dissertation is understanding the factors that influence decisions around selection in school libraries and the role of self-censorship. April is part of the NxtWave program funded by an IMLS grant, a national cohort of Ph.D. students whose focus is school librarianship. As a graduate teaching assistant with SLIS, April is teaching Information Literacy and Young Adult Materials. Prior to her doctoral studies, April served for 15 years as a high school media specialist in North Carolina. She is also a past president of the North Carolina School Library Media Association. April also serves on the Intellectual Freedom Committee of the South Carolina Association of School Librarians. Find her on Twitter @aprldwkns.