HAMLET — A decision to pull an entire run of yearbooks — even those already purchased — because of “inappropriate” senior quotes has a Richmond County school in the national spotlight and drawing criticism from free speech organizations.
Last week, “a handful” of the 2017 yearbooks for Richmond Early College High School were recalled by Principal Tonya Waddell after “the school and district administration felt several of the quotes submitted by students were inappropriate,” according to a statement released Friday by Ashley-Michelle Thublin, public information officer for Richmond County Schools.
The district referred to the quotes as “a mistake … discovered by the principal” and said those that had been handed out were taken back the same morning and the rest were not distributed.
“Because the school is an Early College, there is no yearbook ‘class’ and there had not been a yearbook for several years,” according to the statement, which added that 22 yearbooks had been pre-sold to students and staff at a cost of $30 each.
“After contacting the publishing company about a possible re-print, it was decided with only (six) days of school left, there would not be time to order the re-print and distribute them,” the release continued.
The only “inappropriate” quote that is known is “Build that wall,” attributed to President Donald Trump, which was used by a female senior. The only reason it is known is because a photo of the student and her quote from the yearbook was posted to Facebook.
The school system has yet to give examples of other “inappropriate” quotes or mistakes or even say how many there were.
Several parents told the Daily Journal last week that the quotes had to be approved by the principal before they were submitted for publication in the annual, but the district has not confirmed that either.
When asked for the accuracy of that assertion on Monday, Thublin replied, “We are in the process of refunding all students, and our hope is that we can move forward. Our Early College students are currently focused on exams and looking forward to graduation.”
The district would also not confirm or deny a claim made by parents that students are no longer allowed to wear anything political and that there is discussion of instituting a uniform policy.
“I certainly think that students should be allowed to voice different messages and that political speech is important,” David Hudson of the First Amendment Center said in an email to the Daily Journal on Friday. “A yearbook could have the viewpoints of many different students. I don’t believe schools should be in the business of shutting down yearbooks just because there is a particular message that school officials or others don’t like.
“The whole point of the First Amendment,” he continued, “is to allow speech that challenges the status quo, that pushes the boundaries a bit, and that causes people to think differently.”
In 2011, Hudson published the book, “Let the Students Speak,” which highlights 100 years of court cases related to free speech issues for students — including Tinker v. Des Moines, which allowed students to protest the Vietnam War by wearing black armbands, and Hazlewood v. Kuhlmeier, which gave educators the authority to exercise editorial control “over the style and content of student speech in school-sponsored expressive activities so long as their actions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.”
On Tuesday, the National Coalition Against Censorship issued a press release criticizing the school district’s response by pulling the yearbooks, saying that “shielding students from controversial opinions on important issues, like immigration, leaves them ill-equipped to deal with disagreeable perspectives they will inevitable encounter in day-to-day life.”
Along with the release was a copy of a letter from Svetlana Mintcheva, director of programs for the coalition, addressed to the school’s principal.
“While school officials do have the right to prevent inappropriate conduct directed at other students, mere advocacy for a border wall by no means constitutes harassment or bullying that can justify restrictions on purely political speech,” Mintcheva wrote. “The student who selected ‘Build that wall!’ as her yearbook quote sought to convey her viewpoint on an incredibly important political issue: immigration policy.
“This viewpoint is — regardless of its merits or lack thereof — shared by millions of Americans including prominent political leaders such as governors, congressmen, and President Trump,” she continued. “By censoring expression of this commonly held position, you have set a dangerous precedent and implied that any viewpoint on controversial issues such as immigration is subject to censorship as long as someone finds it ‘inappropriate.’ This arbitrary action demonstrates to students that allegedly offensive ideas should be met with censorship rather than reasoned debate.”
Mintcheva argues that it is not a school’s mission to insulate students from controversy, but expose them to a variety of ideas so they can learn to analyze those ideas critically.
“Schools that fail to do so,” she added, “inadequately prepare their students for the real world, where they will be exposed to controversial — and possibly offensive — ideas in the media on a daily basis.”