A two-page timeline that was "ripped" from many Bigelow High School yearbooks should be reprinted and distributed to everyone at the high school, according to the Student Press Law Center, which condemned the action as "an unlawful and insulting display of censorship."
Superintendent Heidi Wilson should include a "formal, public written apology" with the reprinted pages, according to an email that Hadar Harris, executive director of the national organization, sent to Wilson on Friday.
Based in Washington, D.C., the Student Press Law Center promotes and defends the First Amendment rights of student journalists, and their advisers, at the high school and college levels.
The timeline's title was "From a deadly pandemic to a global movement for racial justice, this year had its fair share of world-changing events." The timeline included the U.S. Capitol riot and the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Daunte Wright.
The timeline and letter to Wilson can be seen at https://bit.ly/3k9cmou.
"As we understand it, school officials made the ill-conceived decision to remove a two-page spread in the yearbook following publication," wrote Harris. "The spread outlined important world events that took place during the 2020-2021 academic year, including the 2020 election, the impact of covid-19, the death of George Floyd, and more. The reason cited for the removal of the already-published content was that school officials were at the receiving end of 'community backlash' over the yearbook spread."
When asked for documentation regarding the community backlash, the superintendent couldn't produce any, according to Harris. The center submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for "A copy of any document (including, but not limited to, any letters, emails, social media messages, voicemail recordings, or voicemail transcripts) reflecting the 'community backlash' against the 2020-2021 Bigelow High School yearbook."
"It is painfully clear that you did not remove these pages from the yearbook for any legally justifiable reason," wrote Harris. "In fact, even the legally dubious reason you gave about the so-called 'community backlash' failed to hold up under closer scrutiny. A public records request served on your office seeking any records reflecting any 'community backlash' against the yearbook turned up nothing. As you stated yourself in your reply, an 'extensive search' did not yield anything responsive."
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette made a similar request under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.
"I have done an extensive search and I don't have anything responsive," Wilson replied in an email to the newspaper on Aug. 10.
Wilson couldn't be reached for comment Wednesday. She is superintendent of the East End School District, which includes Bigelow. The high school in Perry County enrolled 285 students last year.
The yearbook adviser, Meghan Clarke Walton, resigned over the censorship issue. She also taught English and journalism at the school.
"I told them that I didn't want to continue in my role as an adviser to student publications because I felt like doing so would unfairly put a target on my back and the backs of my students," Walton said in a text message Wednesday. "I told them I was willing to teach any other classes, even a beginning journalism class. I just couldn't do publications. I was told that my contract says 'English teacher and any other duties as assigned,' and I would have to choose to stay on as I was or resign. I went home, prayed about it with my husband and resigned the next day. It was an extraordinarily difficult decision."
Walton said more than 100 distributed yearbooks had the pages removed. About 15 yearbooks that were sold during the first day of distribution are the only ones that have all the pages, she said.
The yearbooks were distributed July 28 and Aug. 3, according to an Instagram post.
The Rev. Michael Scroggins, pastor at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Bigelow, said he's been trying to mediate between the school district and the community.
Scroggins said school officials described the yearbook timeline to him as "too political" and "too national."
Scroggins said the yearbook includes, and is distributed to, students as young as prekindergarten, as well as those in grade school. Some parents thought the content of the timeline was too much for those young minds, he said.
Scroggins said he understands that argument.
"In their defense, I can understand the level of seriousness of some of the elements in the timeline, and they were unaware of these things that were in there," said Scroggins.
But they shouldn't throw the yearbook adviser under the bus, he said, adding that the school district should also take responsibility for not providing Walton with better guidance before the book was published.
Scroggins said the senior high school yearbook staff prepared a timeline that was appropriate for senior high school students.
"If there was any mishandling of what their work was supposed to be, the adults should take responsibility," he said.
Scroggins said the school district's silence regarding the media was making matters worse.
Not talking about it, and explaining the yearbook is distributed to young children, is "like leaving the skunk in the room," he said.
Scroggins said people in his congregation are concerned.
"They were very concerned that it was removed," he said. "They want explanations as to why. The school district has an out, a way out."
Walton said she understands that argument after she had time to reflect on it.
"I honestly did not think about it, and I am sure my students didn't either," she said in a text message. "It was just two pages with facts on them. I honestly did not think it would be controversial."
"I teach a very in-depth lesson on media bias, how to identify it, and how to become knowledgeable consumers of media," said Walton. "I try to drill into my student journalists how important it is to be objective when consuming news and, more importantly, reporting on news."
Walton said she wasn't given much direction regarding the yearbook.
"If I was given guidance on what they expected for the yearbook beforehand, I would have definitely followed it," she said. "I didn't even know that it is customary for admin approval before submitting the book for publication. I come from the newspaper world where you do not get prior approval, so I didn't even think that it was unusual that they didn't ask to see it."
Walton, who lives in Russellville, said she's received support from her students and their parents.
"It is a shame that an uproar from what I assume is the minority has led to my resignation from a school and community that I loved," she said. "Because the school is so rural, kids have teachers coming in and out of their lives constantly. It is unfair to the kids."
Student journalists have First Amendment rights that their schools cannot lawfully override, Harris wrote in her letter to Superintendent Wilson.
"The U.S. Supreme Court set a 'floor' for the legal protection of student journalism in its 1988 ruling, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, and said that school officials have to demonstrate that their censorship is 'reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns,'" wrote Harris. "Although the Court did not specifically define every reason that could qualify as a 'legitimate pedagogical concern,' lower courts have clarified that schools may not use their authority over student publications to deny information to the public purely for purposes of public-relations image control."
Arkansas is one of the 14 states that has passed a law granting student journalists protections beyond those required by the First Amendment, according to Harris. She was referring to the Arkansas Student Publications Act, Arkansas Code Annotated § 6-18-1201-1204.
"As a result, your Bigelow High School students have heightened protection for their works of journalism, and Bigelow school officials have to meet a much higher standard than 'community backlash' before they are allowed to censor," wrote Harris.
Frank D. LoMonte, professor and director of The Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida, agreed.
"This is a pretty clear-cut case of the type of censorship that the Arkansas New Voices law was intended to outlaw," he wrote in an email. "Speech addressing political issues of public concern has always been understood to occupy the highest rung of First Amendment protection."
LoMonte, who is a former executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said getting students engaged in current events is a good thing.
"The fact that high school students are taking an interest in current events ought to have school administrators turning cartwheels of celebration," he wrote. "Every expert in civics education will tell you that the single most effective way to teach civics is to discuss current events. It's the one sure-fire way to get students engaged. When you stifle discussion of current events, you stifle civic education, and there is unanimous national consensus that students are graduating with a deficit of civic knowledge.
"Basing a censorship decision on community complaints allows the most thin-skinned, unreasonable person in the audience to decide what everyone else gets to read," wrote LoMonte. "It's the epitome of cancel culture. If every publication made available to students is required to have 100 percent enthusiasm from the public, we're very quickly going to get into a cancel-culture spiral until the only thing left on the shelves is 'Dick and Jane.'"
LoMonte said the school could offer a refund to disappointed yearbook buyers.
"But that should be the remedy, not tearing pages out of books," he wrote. "Think of the lesson that is teaching young people: If you just whine loudly enough, you can get any speaker you disagree with silenced."
When told about the yearbook being distributed to very young children, LoMonte said: "I bet if you talk to the parents of any Black boy in America in elementary school, his parents have already had a long talk with him about not getting shot by the police. Kids are saturated by media from a very early age, and it's actually really important to encourage them to become news consumers, because the alternative is that they'll get sucked into YouTube watching conspiracy videos."
"My minority students are very familiar with the events that were on those two pages because it effects them more than we will ever know or understand," she wrote in a text.
Regarding the letter of apology that Harris wants Wilson to write, Harris said: "The apology should be addressed to the yearbook staff and the now-former yearbook adviser Meghan Walton, recognizing the rights of student journalists and acknowledging that the removal of the pages was wrong. The apology and the reprinted pages should be distributed to the entire Bigelow High School community (not only the people who purchased yearbooks.) This is in lieu of reprinting and redistributing the entire uncensored yearbook."
In the letter, Harris "strongly suggested" that the reprinted pages and an apology be distributed by Sept. 15.
The Student Press Law Center believes the work of the free press is an integral part of the nation's democracy, according to Harris' letter.
"In its recent opinion upholding the First Amendment rights of students to speak free of administrative control, the U.S. Supreme Court said that our nation's schools were 'nurseries of democracy,' charged with instilling in our next generation an appreciation for the rights we hold dear," wrote Harris. "Having Bigelow High School students witness government officials physically ripping otherwise lawful pages from the student yearbook is, I hope we can agree, a lousy civics lesson. We urge you, as professional educators, to take this opportunity to fix that."