California teens sue school district over censored yearbook
(Editor’s note: The Associated Press reported that Superior Court Judge Richard Silver on Oct. 5 rejected the students’ request for a temporary injunction that would have prevented Salinas High School administrators from censoring the yearbook in the future. Silver said a trial would be the best way to sort out the dispute.)
Several California high school students are suing administrators for removing material from their 2000-2001 yearbook, including photographs of skimpily dressed singers Christina Aguilera, Mary J. Blige and Britney Spears.
In their lawsuit, eight Salinas High School students claim school administrators censored their yearbook, the El Gabilan, and used prior restraint.
Named as defendants in the lawsuit are school Principal Joseph Pawlick, the Salinas Union High School District and current yearbook adviser Darrin Herschberger.
The suit, filed Aug. 13 in Monterey County Superior Court, alleges that school administrators deleted various quotes and photographs of celebrities from the 2000-2001 El Gabilan. A trial date has not been set.
Administrators deleted photographs of Spears, Aguilera and Blige last March when yearbook staffers were preparing the book for publication, said Ashley Guzman, a Salinas High School senior and one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
Guzman said administrators removed quotes from the publication, including the following: “Save a wave, ride a surfer,” “Music makes the people come together” and “School is like a lollipop. It sucks until it’s gone.”
Steven Andre, the students’ attorney, said another quote — “This class is smooth like a baldheaded monkey” — was deleted because a faculty member claimed it was a phallic reference.
“I think it’s a shame that school administrators who are supposed to be educating the students to appreciate the value of the First Amendment are teaching them oppression and censorship,” Andre said.
According to the suit, in addition to censoring El Gabilan, school administrators tampered with computer disks and yearbook proofs last school year. Also, Pawlick called to his office several seniors who were quoted in the yearbook and “intimidated” them into changing or retracting their yearbook quotes, the suit contends.
The complaint argues that administrators violated the students free-speech and free-press rights guaranteed under the First Amendment and California law.
In 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier that “a school need not tolerate student speech that is inconsistent with its basic educational mission, even though the government could not censor similar speech outside the school.”
But Hazelwood does not affect California student-censorship cases, says Mike Hiestand, an attorney with the Student Press Law Center. California is one of six states that provide additional legal protection for student speech, he said.
“The federal Constitution guarantees a minimal level of free-speech protection. States can always give additional protection, and that’s what California has done,” said Hiestand.
The attorney for the administrators, Lou Lozano, admitted that administrators removed sexually suggestive material from the yearbook. “We don’t think it was appropriate for the yearbook to encourage teens to have sex,” Lozano told freedomforum.org.
Pawlick and Herschberger expressed concern about the yearbook’s contents after the 1999-2000 El Gabilan was published, Lozano said. They claim former yearbook adviser Cynthia Hess allowed the students to include information with sexual references in the publication, he said.
Pawlick removed Hess as yearbook adviser at the end of that school year and placed Herschberger in the position, Guzman said.
“She was removed because she obeyed the law,” Andre told freedomforum.org. According to California law, a public school yearbook adviser can only remove information that’s obscene or incites violence, he said.
But Lozano said Hess wasn’t replaced because administrators disliked how she oversaw the yearbook. Instead, she was reassigned to teach a math course because the high school was experiencing a teacher shortage, he said.
Guzman said Pawlick and Herschberger continue to censor the yearbook. Herschberger now serves as the temporary yearbook instructor. But he’s not doing the job well, and she and a few of her classmates are leading the class, Guzman said.
“On the first day of school he notified us that he’s not qualified to teach the class,” Guzman said. “He doesn’t have any experience or training in journalism. We’ve been back to school for over a month and he hasn’t done any work,” she added.
Herschberger has already tried to persuade the yearbook class to do away with the senior quotes that typically appear in El Gabilan, Guzman said. “He’s showing us what kind of adviser he’s going to be.”
The students are seeking $51,000 to publish a replacement yearbook, an injunction to stop school administrators from censoring the yearbook and the cost of attorney’s fees.
“Hopefully, after the trial, the wrongs will be righted,” Guzman told freedomforum.org. “I believe the yearbook class will be able to speak more freely,” she said. “I think it will allow more creative ideas to come out.”
Herschberger, Pawlick and Hess did not return calls for comment.