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Orlando Sentinel

Florida high school to cover yearbook photos of ‘don’t say gay’ student protests

ORLANDO, Fla. — A Seminole County high school is covering up yearbook photos of students protesting Florida’s so-called “don’t say gay” bill, a move that the publication’s staffers call censorship.

Lyman High School’s yearbook features photos of students holding rainbow flags and a sign reading, “love is love” during a walkout protest in March.

But school officials delayed distributing the yearbooks Monday and determined that certain pictures and descriptions “did not meet school board policy,” Michael Hunter, the school’s principal, said in a recorded message.

“Rather than reprinting the yearbook at substantial cost and delay, we have elected to cover the material that is out of compliance with board policy so that yearbooks can be distributed as soon as possible,” he said.

Danielle Pomeranz, the yearbook’s faculty adviser, said she was told to check into placing stickers over photos and captions of the walkout protest.

Students who worked on the yearbook have launched a social media campaign called #stopthestickers.

“This really shouldn’t be happening because all we did as journalists was document what was happening at our school on our campus,” said Skye Tiedemann, one of the yearbook’s editors-in-chief. “To have that covered up isn’t right. ... This is censorship.”

Hunter’s message didn’t explain which material in the yearbook was objectionable or why, but he said distribution was delayed to ensure the yearbook meets all Seminole County School Board policies, “particularly as it pertains to non-school sponsored events contained in school publications.”

“Unfortunately, the pictures and descriptions that depicted this event did not meet school board policy and were not caught earlier in the review process,” he said.

Pomeranz said she was told administrators are concerned the photos of the walkout show students breaking school rules.

About 600 yearbooks were ordered, and it would cost about $45,000 to have them reprinted, Pomeranz said.

Earlier this year, students across Florida walked out of class to protest HB 1557, officially titled Parental Rights in Education but known as the “don’t say gay” bill by opponents. The law bans classroom instruction on “sexual orientation or gender identity” for grades kindergarten through three or in a manner that is not “age appropriate.”

Opponents said the law is vague and will have a chilling effect on the discussion of LGBTQ topics in schools.

Madi Koesler, a college volunteer who took the photos, said censoring the yearbook would validate those fears.

“They are having their voices taken away from them,” said Koesler, a student at Seminole State College and a recent Lyman High School graduate. “As someone who took the photo, it is heartbreaking to see this. This is exactly what they were protesting, and now it is happening to them. It is so disappointing.”

School officials didn’t raise concerns about photos of another walkout published in the yearbook in 2018, Koesler said. That protest called for gun control laws following the Parkland school shooting that killed 17 students and staff.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 1988 landmark case that educators could prevent the publication of articles about teenage pregnancy and divorce in a school-sponsored newspaper. Justices wrote, “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.”

Educators can exercise editorial control in school-sponsored publications as long as their actions are “reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns,” the justices wrote.

But Clay Calvert, a University of Florida law and journalism professor, said he thinks blocking the photos could raise First Amendment issues for the district.

“I don’t see any legitimate teaching concerns here,” Calvert said. “The speech that is being censored is political speech that is at the heart of the First Amendment.”

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