Thursday, December 24, 2015

Can a principal censor yearbook content?















That's the question raised by a recent decision by a principal in suburban Washington, D.C.  (Full disclosure: I have taught summer school at that school over the years, and the principal at issue here was my administrator during at least one of my summer sessions.)  The controversy was discussed in a recent story in the Washington Post.

This year's yearbook editor wanted to include a photograph of a current student that showed her pregnant belly.  According to the student editor, the principal will not allow that photograph to be included in the yearbook.  The student and her father support publication of the photo.  It is not clear yet when or how this controversy will be resolved.

Under the U.S. Constitution, who should win?  That's the question we could be asking our students.

This hypothetical-turned-real would be an excellent way to introduce the topic of the Constitution and student rights.  Here's a possible workflow.

First, summarize the Post story for your students, then poll their answers (by hands, or with an online platform like socrativ or polleverywhere) to this question: Under the U.S. Constitution, do students have the first amendment right to publish photographs like these in a school yearbook?

Second, assign them to read the Post story.  As they read, ask them to write questions they still have about that topic.  (Examples could include: What if the pregnant student later changed her mind about allowing the photograph to be published?)

Third, assign the students to learn about important Supreme Court cases that have addressed the subject of student rights.  A useful collection is this one by the New York Times.   This would be where I would show this YouTube video.  Here Mary Beth Tinker talks (3:20) about Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District (1969), her "black armband" case.

Fourth, guide your students to see that the case most on point to this controversy is Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier (1988), which held that administrators retain editorial control over student publications as long any restrictions are reasonable.  Street Law has an excellent feature on that case that includes a summary of the Supreme Court's 5-3 decision, and key excerpts from the majority and dissenting opinions.

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