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Heidi Stevens: An important win for reason and inclusivity in battle over 'love is love' photos in Florida yearbook

By Heidi Stevens

Some cooler heads have prevailed in Florida, where Seminole County School Board members unanimously voted down a proposal to cover an entire high school yearbook page in stickers to hide photos of students carrying “love is love” signs.

The photos were taken at a March walkout, which students organized to protest Florida’s Parental Rights in Education bill — widely known as the Don’t Say Gay bill — outside Lyman High School near Orlando. The walkout was unauthorized, as walkouts tend to be, so the superintendent argued that the photos violated a policy prohibiting the yearbook from endorsing unauthorized student activity.

The school ordered sheets of stickers to cover the offending page, prompting students to launch a #stopthestickers campaign on social media.

A vocal group of parents also took issue with the stickers, and the school board, thankfully, overruled the superintendent. Instead, the board decided, smaller stickers will be affixed to the page to remind students the walkout was unauthorized.

“I would be happy out of my own personal pocket to pay for different stickers to say this was not a school-sponsored event,” Board Chair Amy Pennock told the crowd gathered at a recent school board meeting, according to The Palm Beach Post.

I can promise her a good return on that investment.

Students’ First Amendment rights are well and truly protected under the United States Constitution, with the Supreme Court affirming in 1969’s Tinker v. Des Moines that neither students nor teachers “shed their Constitutional rights to freedom of expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

The Quill and Scroll high school honor society provides a principal’s guide to scholastic journalism to help school administrators navigate the murky waters of student media, which include yearbooks. It’s a lovely document, both for its clarity and its belief in young people.

“Instilling in students a sense of responsibility and teaching them to make wise decisions requires giving them responsibility to act independently,” it reads. “For the same reasons administrators don’t conduct chemistry experiments themselves or play quarterback for the football team, sound educational outcomes come from allowing student journalists to make content decisions for themselves.”

Of course there are reasonable limits, also spelled out in the principal’s guide and backed by case law. (When the expression will create a material and substantial disruption of school activities or an invasion of the rights of others. When the expression is pervasively vulgar, lewd or indecent. When the expression advocates illegal drug use.)

But educators are wise, in general, to err on the side of student expression.

Again, from Quill and Scroll:

“The first direct experience most Americans have with press freedom, and the censorship that limits it, begins when they are in school working on student media. That’s why journalism educators, judges and First Amendment advocates have urged schools to support and foster student free expression because it is key to persuading young people ‘that our Constitution is a living reality, not [just] parchment preserved under glass.’”

It’s possible, of course, that the plan to cover the page in stickers had more to do with the particular signs the kids were carrying than the fact that they were carried during an unauthorized event. It’s possible, of course, that photos of a walkout supporting prayer in schools or ending animal testing would receive a warmer reception among administrators.

It’s possible that a statement as benign and unequivocally accurate as “love is love” strikes some grown-ups as too dangerous and radical to be archived and commemorated in the pages of a high school yearbook. It’s possible the sticker orderers would prefer students page through their high school memories without being nudged toward the acceptance of each other’s humanity or alerted to an individual’s right to fully love and be loved or reminded of their responsibility to defend the marginalized.

It’s possible.

Either way, I’m left wondering — as I often am — what world the offended, objecting grown-ups think they’re preparing kids for.

Certainly not the real one, where we all share space and time with people who don’t look or love or live or worship or think like us. Where that diversity of lived experiences and viewpoints and gifts and beliefs is our greatest strength and a source of joy and our human and moral duty to protect. Where the ability to grow and learn and welcome and foster belonging smooths every single path we walk, from our marriages to our friendships to our communities to our careers.

The yearbook victory is a small but important one. And it takes place against an alarming backdrop: a dramatic uptick in book bans and challenges to library, school and university materials; multiple bills proposing fines and criminal charges against educators and librarians; the Don’t Say Gay legislation that sparked the walkout in the first place.

In Nampa, Idaho, where school district trustees just voted to pull 24 books off library shelves and ban them forever (including “It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health”), Republican Rep. Bruce Skaug had this to say, according to TV station Idaho News 6:

“I would rather my 6-year-old grandson start smoking cigarettes tomorrow than get a view of this stuff one time at the public library.”

As long as I live, I will never understand that line of thinking. But I’m drawing hope from stories like the one out of Seminole County, where parents and school board members allowed reason and inclusivity to rule the day — led there, as usual, by our young people.

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Dive Deeper:
Students win in dispute over ‘Don’t Say Gay’ protest images in Florida yearbooks
‘We were all super nervous about what was going to happen,’ student says
Ky. Christian school asks middle schoolers to write warning against homosexuality
LEXINGTON, Ky. — A Christian school in Louisville gave an assignment this week asking middle school students to write a…
Teacher Has Free Exercise Clause Right to Tell Parents About Their Children's "Preferred Names and Pronouns,"
despite a school policy that generally bars teachers from doing so. (For my views on the question, see the end…
Opinion | Why Everybody Digs Book Bannings
There is political advantage in the culture war for Republicans and Democrats alike.
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
Las Vegas struggles with rising violence in schools
The nation's fifth largest school district has seen a jump in violent incidents since returning from 15 months of virtual-only…
Students allowed back to class after prohibition notice lifted
All students at Calwell High School will be returning to campus on Monday after WorkSafe ACT lifted the prohibition notice…
Get all your news in one place