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Law & Courts Opinion

A Lesson in Free Speech

By Thomas Panarese — July 02, 2008 5 min read
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At a May 27 school board meeting in Clovis, N.M., the district superintendent apologized for allowing Clovis High School’s yearbook to publish a spread that featured lesbian couples. The material, which had been vetted by the yearbook’s editors and adviser, was not pornographic in any way. Nevertheless, it had caused controversy in the community and needed to be addressed. What happened, however, said less about public standards of decency than about the cowardice of school districts.

The Clovis story is similar to many First Amendment-related school incidents that have ignited discussion and division in recent years: Something appears in a school publication that a portion of the community finds offensive, and action is taken by the principal, superintendent, or school board to calm the situation.

So we have a continuing stream of well-publicized—and ultimately counterproductive—cases of censorship. In Clovis, the superintendent had a remarkable opportunity to stand up for those she represents—the students of her district. But like so many of her peers in similar situations, she buckled to pressure from one segment of the community and kept the freedom of the student press marching along the silent path it’s been plodding since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1988 ruling in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier (“Court Upholds Censorship of Student Press,” Jan. 20, 1988).

Most of the more common First Amendment controversies surround library books or the student newspaper. But yearbooks are quickly becoming the new free-speech battleground. Last year, at Conifer High School outside Denver, a yearbook spread featuring students drinking and purportedly using illegal drugs elicited protests from the community and resulted in public apologies from the district and the yearbook adviser. The yearbook’s staff members justified their controversial pages in a way that was echoed in comments from the Clovis yearbook’s editor-in-chief, Maggie Chavez. She told The Clovis News Journal that her book’s lesbian spread was meant to be “not so much in your face, so much as ‘hey, this is happening, you should take notice of it.’ ”

The main difference between these two incidents is that the pictures in the Clovis book did not show anything illegal. In fact, the high school’s yearbook staff should be commended for their due diligence. They checked district policy and libel law before publication and found nothing wrong with printing the pictures.

Most of the more common First Amendment controversies surround library books or the student newspaper. But yearbooks are quickly becoming the new free-speech battleground.

Legally, though, the Clovis, N.M., school district has every right to tighten the reins on this yearbook staff. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Hazelwood that school administrators do have the right to censor student publications. But what happened in Clovis wasn’t really about oversight. Up until that incident, the school administration had shown teachers and students that it trusted them by allowing the yearbook’s staff and adviser to make the final decisions about appropriate content. True, previous yearbook controversies may have been no more scandalous than the occasional poor choice of Homecoming attire, but a precedent of trust had been established. Such trust is earned only when the administration knows that the staff is competent and uses good judgment.

So, one might ask, how is simply reflecting student life, in all its legal and fully vetted diversity, a reason to break that bond of trust?

The answer is simple: when intense pressure from conservative groups is involved. A certain segment of the Clovis community thought that the photos of the lesbian couples were morally objectionable. The Clovis News Journal quoted one local pastor as calling for administrative oversight that would “reflect the kind of morality of the majority of the community.”

A disgruntled member of a group called the Christian Citizenship Team echoed that sentiment, adding: “I don’t have a child in school but I’m appalled. If I were the parents of those kids, I’d own that school. Those are minors.”

Yes, they are minors. But the images they published were not, by all reports, graphic or lewd. They simply displayed romantic affection among students of the school. Such depictions of homosexual couples may be “morally objectionable” to these groups, but what about similar ones of heterosexual couples? Why aren’t conservative groups up in arms about these? The male-female couples are minors, too.

Unfortunately, this is but a further example of self-appointed advocacy groups’ bringing their fight for one version of “morals” to modern schools—and forgetting the reality that these institutions represent students of all colors, shapes, interests, and sexual orientations.

What was most disappointing to me about the community pressure in Clovis, however, is that the pronouncements on public morality came not just from groups like the Christian Citizenship Team, but also from a former lieutenant governor of New Mexico. The former state official and prominent business leader Walter Bradley put his opposition this way: “If this is indeed the direction that this school system is going to take and continue to promote, then don’t look to me for any more donations.”

Unfortunately for the former lieutenant governor, this is the direction schools are taking. Public schools are more diverse than ever, and school publications will be called on to cover the life of this new population of students. To do that honestly, they need the support of the school’s administration. And members of the administration and community at large will need to open their eyes to the fact that the world is constantly changing and has many and differing people in it.

Right now, the fight may be over photos of homosexual couples. But what is next? Groups speaking out about a photo of a Muslim student praying? Or photos of interracial couples? When the Clovis superintendent apologized, she started a downward trajectory that every administration faces: When does it stop? Young people can’t be expected to feel confident about authority figures who make it a habit to apologize for students simply being themselves.

The students of Clovis High School have learned a valuable lesson. Not on what is considered moral or what values are right for a community, but on where their administration’s priorities lie. The superintendent acted as if it were more important to ensure monetary support than to stand up for a forward-thinking group of able students. These are the kind of students she has probably held up as an example of how the schools are producing “the leaders of the future.”

Those students have defended themselves with poise so far, and they should continue to fight for their free-speech rights, lest they—and other budding journalists—lose what little voice they have.

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