Today's yearbooks raise eyebrows

Nearly 90 percent of the students at Denver West High School are Latino, so perhaps it should not have been surprising that the cover of the 2005 yearbook boasted a phrase in Spanish: "Quienes somos en verdad?" What was surprising - at least to some parents and other Denver residents - was the fact that the English translation of the phrase "Who are we really?" got relegated to the back cover. To critics, this was a sign of disrespect of the English language, and the yearbook quickly turned into a cause célèbre, engaging talk-show hosts in Denver earlier this month and forcing the principal to apologize.

But the yearbook adviser refused to back down. "What I like to remind people is that a yearbook is a student publication," Jerry Clayton told the Rocky Mountain News. "It is written by students for students."

In the past, many sensitive topics - interracial relationships, drug and alcohol use, teen sex - were verboten topics in yearbooks, which often barely featured anything more than photos. But in recent years, student editors have sought more freedom to treat grittier topics.

"Good yearbooks themselves are a reflection of the world as it is, not a reflection of the world as school officials would like it to be," says Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, an advocacy organization. "The best publications are those that most accurately reflect the highs and the lows, the positives and the negatives of their community."

In southwestern Kansas, for example, Garden City High School's yearbook has published stories about everything from body piercings to the campus's day-care program for the children of young mothers. About 50 miles away, Dodge City High's yearbook recently tackled the issue of same-sex relationships in a piece about campus couples.

Even 10 or 15 years ago, such issues wouldn't have made it into print, Garden City High yearbook adviser Betsy Hirst says. But times have changed.

"There have always been some journalistic yearbooks, but they really caught hold in the late '80s and early '90s, when people started thinking they needed to do more than snapshot pages," says Linda Putney, executive director of the Journalism Education Association.

But even fairly traditional snapshot pages can cause trouble when students use them to make points about their own convictions or outside activities.

Last winter, for example, a high school in Fleming Island, Fla., drew fire from gay-rights groups when it barred a lesbian student from wearing a tuxedo in her yearbook picture. The yearbook's student editor reportedly was fired from her position because she refused her adviser's order to remove the photo.

In Londonderry, N.H., a student last fall threatened to sue his high school for refusing to allow him to appear in a yearbook photo with his shotgun. But a federal judge ruled this year that student editors had the right to reject the photo.

Thanks to the First Amendment and court rulings, students have significant rights to control the content of yearbooks, just as they have the power to tackle a variety of issues in school newspapers.

"The law doesn't really distinguish based on the medium of expression," says Mr. Goodman of the Student Press Law Center. On the libel front, student publications face the same obligations as mainstream newspapers. But there's no legal precedent among published court cases for a student publication being sued for libel, Goodman says.

Yet the debate over the full extent of student free-press rights is never ending, he says. Principals have long tried to intervene when they don't like the content.

For example, this year south Florida's Boynton Beach High School is working to recall its 2005 yearbooks because they include a photo of a white student leading her black boyfriend on a leash.

The photo, according to news reports, was supposed to be a joke, illustrating that he was the student most under the thumb of his girlfriend, but the history of slavery gave it a more sinister meaning.

Yearbooks can also cause trouble, Goodman says, when inappropriate material is inserted without approval.

Indeed, yearbook advisers have eternally been on guard against students who sneak obscene gestures into photos. But now the subterfuge is becoming more brazen, says Carey Kehler, national sales manager for Friesen Yearbooks, a Canadian company that publishes hundreds of yearbooks in North America.

"What happens more and more is that students put the page together, the teacher reads it and says, 'Go ahead and send it to the printer,' and before they do, they'll take a caption out and substitute it with another caption that can be libelous or slanderous," he says. "Kids will try to get away with all kinds of stuff."

Sometimes, the printer catches the revised material and airbrushes it out, Mr. Kehler says. But in some cases, the school has to order permanent stickers to cover up the inappropriate material.

With the advent of computerized design, advisers must also keep an eye out for image manipulation. Ms. Hirst, the Garden City adviser, says her students confessed that they'd manipulated a photo to include twins - one of whom hadn't originally been in the photo.

It was a chance to dispense ethics along with yearbook advice, says Hirst, "a teachable moment about how you really need to be honest with your audience."

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