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WCSD proposes censoring school yearbooks; students claim free speech restricted

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The Washoe County School Board is proposing censoring school yearbooks. Students are fighting back in the name of their First Amendment rights. And Nevada law appears to back them.

Grace Ericson and Decker Westenburg are the editors-in-chief for the Reno High School yearbook. Their advisor recently told them that the district was considering revamping its policy regarding interscholastic athletics. It wants to only allow district-sponsored sports in the school yearbook.

"I feel they're directly attacking our First Amendment rights," said Westenburg.

Westenburg and Ericson said non-sanctioned athletics have been included in the yearbook for years. In the latest 2017 edition, you can find the Lacrosse Club, the Fly Fishing Club and other activities. If the board passes the proposal, those club sports would not be in the yearbook.

"The Spanish teacher took students to Puerto Rico, and that's not sanctioned by the school. And they're not telling us we can't cover that, but they say we can't cover lacrosse. It's ridiculous," said Ericson.

The students say the yearbooks have always been student-produced.

"We pick the fonts that we use, we pick the theme that we use, we pick every part of the book, we choose ourselves," said Ericson.

A Washoe County School District Spokeswoman said nobody was available for an on-camera interview, but in an e-mail said:

Yearbooks are student publications and as such students have journalistic privileges to include freedom of speech. However, yearbooks may be limited to inclusion of only school organizations and events. The District has not made a final decision, and is in the process of creating guidelines that will be available for public review prior to adoption. We are working on a regulation about student publications related to freedom of speech, but those rights are already in place—this is simply a formal process to make it official.

Dr. Patrick File, an assistant professor in media law at the University of Nevada, Reno's The Reynolds School of Journalism, said the district can't censor the yearbook.

He was consulted in writing SB420, which became law last October. It says "pupil publications" can't be censored unless there is a substantial disruption of the school.

"They can't write a policy that runs afoul of the state law," he said. "This qualifies as a pupil publication; it's edited and put together by students. There's not a distinction between yearbooks and newspapers that's drawn in that law. "

Lisa Scurry, the Washoe County School District Policy Coordinator, told the board on February 13 that "yearbook isn't really a journalist enterprise... and the Senate Bill we interpret it, like I said, I spoke to somebody else in the Office of the General Council today, was more for journalistic enterprises like school newspaper or things that students are publishing versus a yearbook, which is really to my understanding, outlined by the school."

But it's clear that the students publish the yearbooks. There's even a disclaimer in the back of the book that says: "Our book is a direct representation of Reno High School students rather than a censored book controlled by either the administrator or the Washoe County School District."

File said the district could face a lawsuit if they pass the policy. The board plans to talk about the proposal at Tuesday's meeting. Students are expected to be there to stand against the policy.

"One of our foundations that we build our yearbook on is to accurately cover the events of the year. We are not just a glorified photo book; we are an accurate depiction of what happens throughout the year, and part of the year is covering the 100-plus students in our school that don't do sanctioned sports," Westenburg said.


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