EDITORIAL: Yearbook censors see backlash for silencing students

Three schools made headlines this month for their overreaction to senior quotes in student yearbooks. Officials employed varying levels of censorship, from the modest to the heavy-handed to the extreme.

Poston Butte High School apologized for at least 15 to 20 “inappropriate” quotes in its yearbook released May 12, according to a story in The Arizona Republic republished in USA Today.

The principal said students offended by the quotes could return their yearbooks for a full refund, and Poston Butte also distributed free stickers for students who wished to cover the comments.

While a public school shouldn’t teach that an adhesive cover-up is the correct response to discomforting words, at least school officials left the choice in students’ hands. Promoting censorship doesn’t deserve applause, but Poston Butte’s response is a model of restraint compared to North Carolina’s recent yearbook controversies.

Piedmont Community Charter School in Gastonia censored two students’ senior quotes, one playful and one political, by striking through the comments in black marker before the books were distributed, according to The Gaston Gazette.

Julianna Coon had written that she was graduating in January because the school didn’t want her there for a full year — a remark she told the Gazette she intended as a lighthearted joke. Frances Quinn wrote that Gandhi was a racist. Both remarks were redacted.

A revered civil rights leader who championed the cause of Indian independence, Mahatma Gandhi also made numerous statements disparaging black Africans. That dichotomy has been documented and discussed at length. It’s an entirely appropriate academic point to argue in high school, and one wonders what educators at Piedmont Community Charter were thinking in censoring the quote.

At least those Gastonia students were allowed to keep their yearbooks, marred though they were with marker streaks. At Richmond Early College High School in Hamlet, a handful of “inappropriate” senior quotes prompted administrators to confiscate several yearbooks that had been handed out and refuse to distribute the rest.

The early college faced swift backlash in the national media after a photo of Miranda Taylor’s senior quote, “Build that wall!” attributed to President Donald Trump, circulated on social media. School officials haven’t described any of the other objectionable comments.

While a Supreme Court precedent allows public K-12 schools to censor yearbooks and student newspapers for educational purposes, the Virginia-based Rutherford Institute and the National Coalition Against Censorship say the school failed to meet that limited standard and has violated Taylor’s First Amendment rights.

The Arizona and North Carolina schools all saw a barrage of negative publicity as a result of their yearbook censorship. The lesson for principals and superintendents is clear: Suppressing speech will make more waves than some tempest in a teapot over a high-schooler’s words.

Schools should use eyebrow-raising senior quotes as a teachable moment. Instead of catering to the immature and perpetually offended, challenge graduating seniors to engage with each other in respectful debate. Let the students speak.

The Wilson Times