School Yearbooks, Plays, Newspapers, Etc.

Written by Chad Vignola on 03-31-2003

Toleration of diverse viewpoints is not only a fundamental American principle but also a key element of the character of our richly diverse school system, which welcomes children of all beliefs, creeds, philosophies, religions and ethnicities.

When schools do more than merely tolerate and indeed actively encourage a wide range of debate on many issues, we teach critical thought, analysis, and provoke insight on important issues. Ensuring a safe haven for artistic expression, an open marketplace for diverse ideas, and wide-ranging thinking is essential to a healthy learning environment, particularly one as ever changing as New York City�s schools.

It is not always a simple task, however, to be rigorous in upholding the opportunities for diverse viewpoints while respecting and fostering a constructive and productive school environment. On the one hand, we must resist the temptation to censor views we don�t agree with or that we fear will provoke negative responses from various groups connected to our schools. On the other hand, educators sometimes need to prohibit certain forms of speech within the school, particularly in school-sanctioned venues such as yearbooks and school newspapers. Therefore, it is useful to revisit the rules regarding school-sponsored speech.

For example, as the time to prepare yearbooks approaches, remember that proper review of yearbook materials prior to publication is required. While individual creative expression by students should be encouraged, yearbooks are school-sponsored activities, supervised by faculty members and designed as educational tools to teach particular skills to student participants. Schools do not violate students� first amendment rights by asserting authority over the style and content of yearbooks as long as their actions are reasonably related to legitimate educational concerns. For example, while a school generally should not prohibit mere criticism of the school, it may prohibit the publication of racist or obscene material.

In setting high standards for speech that is disseminated under the school�s auspices, educators are entitled to take appropriate measures to ensure that students learn the lessons the activity is designed to teach, that readers are not exposed to material that may be inappropriate for their level of maturity, and that the views of the individual speaker are not attributed erroneously to the school.

Faculty members working with students on the publication of yearbooks, newspapers, and other school-sponsored expression should discuss these standards and their implementation with students to ensure that everyone involved understands their rights and responsibilities in this area.

If you have any questions about the standard of review that applies or how to apply the standard to a particular situation, please contact Robin Greenfield (212 374-2983 / or Debbie King (212 374-2985 / in my office.