If you work with us, you know we are always talking about how important it is to remember that a yearbook is a history book–a permanent record of the school year and the events that occurred as well as the people who participated in or attended those events. The permanence of this record came into the news forefront again last month when Christine O’Donnell won Delaware’s Republican senatorial primary. After her victory, a video clip from a 1999 television interview surfaced in which O’Donnell made some comments about “dabbling in witchcraft” in high school. That’s when the demand for copies of her high school yearbook skyrocketed. You can read the full story here:
So, once again, we want to remind yearbook staffs of the responsibility you have to carefully consider the topics and the quotes you choose to print each year. You are expected to operate under the same principles as professional journalists. While you do have rights and protections under the First Amendment, you are not protected by the courts if you print materials that are obscene, libelous or disruptive. The Student Press Law Center (SPLC) states on its website,
“You can’t be liable for defamation if you just publish a critical opinion about someone or reveal an unpleasant truth. But if you make a false accusation of fact (even one implied in an “opinion” column), then you may have committed defamation. Invasion of privacy occurs when a publication publicizes embarrassing personal information without consent and with no newsworthy justification, such as gossip about a teacher’s marital problems. It can also happen if you mislabel a photo so that it gives a false impression that harms a person’s reputation (“false light”).”
We do not advocate censoring your events, but rather determine the appropriateness of comments or even coverage for your publication. How will any particular statement or story add to the complete picture of the school year, and is it something each of you would be proud to show your grandmother or your own future children. “Shock and awe” stories really do not belong in a yearbook–save those for the tabloids. Real, honest, accurate, non-editorial reporting should be the basis of each of the events you choose to include. Always ask yourselves, “How does this event/story/quote improve our coverage of the year?” and “Is our coverage in good taste?” These two questions can keep your yearbook and your students out of the news spotlight both now, and in the future.
Student Press Law Center (www.splc.org or by phone: 703.807.1904)
First Amendment Center (www.firstamendmentcenter.org)
High School Journalism by Homer L. Hall, Logan H. Aimone (2008; 352 pages)
Scholastic Journalism by Thomas Rolnicki, C. Dow Tate, Sherri Taylor (2007; 448 pages)