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Florida high school won't have to cover yearbook photos of 'Don't Say Gay' student walkout

Principal Michael Hunter said the school had initially decided to cover photos considered "out of compliance with board policy."

LONGWOOD, Fla. — Update: After an outcry from students and parents over yearbook censorship, a Florida school board overruled their superintendent's plan to cover up the photos of the students' walkout against the state's so-called “Don't Say Gay" law. 

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Previous story: Yearbooks at a central Florida high school won't be distributed until images of students holding rainbow flags and a “love is love” sign while protesting the state's so-called “Don't Say Gay” law can be covered up.

District officials said they don't want anyone thinking that the school supported the students' walkout.

Lyman High School Principal Michael Hunter said in a statement on Monday that “pictures and descriptions" documenting a student walk-out in March in response to Florida's Parental Rights in Education law were not “caught earlier in the review process."

The bill, signed into law by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, bans classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade. 

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

In an email Tuesday, Seminole County Public Schools spokesman Michael Lawrence said the issue wasn't with the protest but how its depiction in the yearbook could be interpreted as being endorsed by the school, which would be in violation of the school board's policy.

Lawrence noted that the yearbook dedicates a separate page to the school's Gay Straight Alliance Club and elsewhere shows students at a pride march and holding rainbow flags. He said those depictions do comply with the policy.

“The issue at hand here is not the photos or the topic for which the students were protesting," Lawrence said. “If these items were caught earlier prior to print, some simple editing/tweaking likely could’ve occurred to make that section in compliance prior to print."

When asked what would have needed editing, Lawrence said, “specifically making it clear that this particular event was a ‘student'-led event that was not sponsored, endorsed, or promoted by the district or school would’ve solved the issue."

School officials determined that the least costly solution would be to cover up that section so that the yearbooks could still be distributed to seniors before graduation and the rest of the student body prior to summer break, he said.

The yearbook's faculty advisor Danielle Pomeranz told the Orlando Sentinel that she was asked to check into putting stickers over the photos and captions depicting the walkout. She said it would cost $45,000 to reprint the 600 yearbooks.

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

The Class of 2022 was set to have a "special seniors only" yearbook distribution night on Monday, according to Hunter's April 18 "Principal's Weekly Update."

But Tiedemann told WKMG that event was canceled.

Students at the school in Longwood, which is near Orlando, have created a hashtag"#stopthestickers," which is circulating on social media. They also planned a peaceful protest at Tuesday night's meeting of the Seminole County School Board, WKMG reported.

Rep. Carlos G. Smith, a Democrat who is the state's first LGBTQ Latino legislator, said in a tweet that the “censorship is a direct result of the law these students were protesting. #WeWillNotBeErased in this so-called ‘free state.' “

DeSantis frequently refers to the free state of Florida in his news conferences.

State Rep. Anna Eskamani, a Democrat from the Orlando area, said in a letter to school board members that she was disappointed by the decision.

“Students were empowered to craft a yearbook that reflects their lived experience of the academic year and did so with professionalism — sharing a piece of history on Lyman's campus, one that should be reflected upon," Eskamani said. “Not censored."

10 Tampa Bay's Andrea Chu contributed to this report.

Censorship or not?

So is this censorship and do schools in Florida have the right to cover up or remove content from yearbooks?

To get a sharper insight, 10 Tampa Bay spoke with Hadar Harris, who is the executive director of the Student Press Law Center. SPLC is a non-profit that works to support and defend the First Amendment and press freedom rights of high school and college journalists.

The students have contacted the organization, and SPLC is now working with them to review the school's reason for why this content must be covered.

"It's the job of yearbook journalism to document the student experience and to create an accurate record of the school year. That's true, whether it's a football game, whether it's the prom, or whether it's protests. So censoring...trying to cover up with stickers. That student experience is absolutely a form of censorship," she said.

She says a 1988 Supreme Court ruling known as the Hazelwood decision allows schools to censor student work for legitimate pedagogical concerns. That includes grammar or content a school deems vulgar, profane or unsuitable for immature audiences.

SPLC says their research shows that currently, at least two other high schools in Seminole County have also had their yearbooks pulled for review.