Yearbook Incidents Spark Debate on Advisers' Role
At Bowie High School in Prince George's County, Md., this year's yearbook will likely be remembered long after many of the events it describes.
The book grabbed national attention late last month after it came to light that it included, along with the usual team photos and student portraits, obscenities, anti-Semitic remarks, and racial slurs.
The incident at Bowie High--and a separate incident at McAllen (Tex.) High School in which this year's yearbook labeled a student a "slut''--has sparked a debate over the role of faculty advisers and principals in guarding against the publication of offensive material in yearbooks.
Such incidents, experts on school law and student publications said in interviews last week, underscore the fact that school officials may now be more legally responsible for the content of student publications as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court's 1988 decision in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier.
In the landmark ruling, the Court held that school administrators have broad authority to regulate student speech in school-sponsored publications and activities. (See Education Week, Jan. 20, 1988.)
"While school districts wanted the additional authority," said Ivan B. Gluckman, director of legal services for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, "it does perhaps expose them to additional risk."
"If you have the authority," he added, "someone can make a legal judgment as to whether you exercised it or not."
Texas and Maryland Incidents
Last month, the parents of a McAllen High freshman whose name with her yearbook photo was changed to include the word "slut" have filed a lawsuit against the McAllen Independent School District.
In the suit, filed in state district court, the parents contend that the characterization of the girl was intentional. They are seeking $600,000 in damages for "shame, embarrassment, humiliation, ridicule, and mental pain and anguish."
The parents also asked the court to issue a temporary restraining order blocking distribution of the yearbook.
Earlier this month, however, the court ruled that the book could be distributed with an adhesive overlay covering the offensive caption.
In the Bowie High incident, John A. Murphy, superintendent of schools in Prince George's County, has recommended that the school board fire the yearbook adviser, Donald Watson, for failing to prevent the book's publication and distribution.
Included in the book, for which students could submit their own quotes to accompany their photographs, was one obscene expletive, one sexually explicit slur of female students, and one racial slur spelled backward. The yearbook also included the word "Jews" superimposed over a picture of three girls in formal dresses.
Two students, neither of whom worked on the yearbook staff, were expelled as a result of the remarks.
Mr. Watson, an English teacher who was paid an additional $1,300 a year to be the yearbook adviser, was suspended without pay pending a decision by the school board.
No action was taken against the school's principal or the yearbook's student editors, Bonnie S. Jenkins, a spokeswoman for the district, said, because "Dr. Murphy felt that the ultimate responsibility was with the faculty adviser."
Roger Kuhn, a spokesman for the Prince George's County Educators' Association, said the union local has filed a labor grievance against Mr. Murphy for violating Mr. Watson's contract.
He said Mr. Watson should not be held responsible for the yearbook's content because he was forced to perform his job under inadequate working conditions.
'The System Works'
Experts on the student press said last week that the vast majority of schools operate student publications in much the same manner as Bowie High.
Typically, they said, principals select a teacher to serve as adviser, usually for additional pay, and the adviser is entrusted to impress upon students the need to be responsible for what they publish.
Kenson J. Siver--president of the Journalism Education Association, a national organization of about 2,000 journalism teachers and publication advisers--said, "Basically, the system works."
Students take their responsibility for what they print seriously, he said, and libel suits against student publications are rare.
But, the experts said, as the Bowie and McAllen yearbooks illustrate, the system occasionally does fail, and school officials--and sometimes the courts--are left with the task of assigning the blame.
Before the Hazelwood decision, which was handed down in January 1988, the question of who to assign responsibility for offensive speech in a student publication was "nebulous," said John S. Simmons, chairman of the standing committee against censorship of the National Council of Teachers of English.
School officials often justified taking a hands-off approach to student publications by citing the Supreme Court's 1969 decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, said Mr. Simmons, a professor of English education and reading at Florida State University.
In that ruling, he said, the Court held that administrators could abridge students' free-speech rights only if the speech threatened to "materially disrupt" school work or violate the rights of others.
When offensive speech was printed, Mr. Simmons noted, the students themselves often became the targets of suits, and they ended up using the Tinker decision to defend themselves.
Impact of Hazelwood
As a result of the Hazelwood decision, the experts said, principals now have the right to censor speech that could be erroneously attributed to the school or that could be considered vulgar, profane, biased, unsuitable for immature audiences, or otherwise below school standards.
But, along with giving principals the ultimate authority to suppress offensive speech, the decision may also have given them the ultimate responsibility for what is published in their student press, agreed Mr. Simmons, Mr. Gluckman of the NASSP, and several other experts on student press law.
"It behooves all principals in high schools to be vigilant about what is coming out in terms of student expression because the buck will stop with them," Mr. Simmons said.
Edmund J. Sullivan--director of the Columbia Scholastic Press Association, which represents 3,000 high-school and college publications--said administrators "have lost the excuse that federal judges prevented them from rolling up their sleeves and getting to work to improve student publications."
"After Hazelwood," he added, "there is no federal court saying to the school district, 'You can't interfere here."'
Mr. Sullivan said principals in the past have frequently responded to the publication of offensive speech by firing a student publications adviser and trying to review all student publications themselves.
But the task "is simply too much work," he added, especially in an era of desktop publishing that, he said, has had the effect of decentralizing student publications.
Three states have passed, and several others have considered, measures designed to reverse the impact of Hazelwood. Many of the statutes shield school authorities from liability for student speech with which they have not interfered.
Mr. Sullivan recommended that principals can also prevent the publication of offensive student speech by not opening the yearbooks and other publications to submissions from the entire student body, and by continuing to emphasize that student editors are accountable for what they publish.