Did Vale’s yearbook words defame? A rights group says nope

VALE –A national organization protecting the First Amendment rights of student journalists recently warned Vale School District officials that their decision to pull the high school’s yearbook could violate state law protecting the press rights of Oregon’s high school and college student journalists.

The Student Press Law Center, a nonprofit organization, wrote in a Sept. 8 letter to the district that Vale’s freedom of expression policy ­does not comply with the state’s New Voices Law, which allows student journalists to determine the content of school-sponsored media, except in narrowly defined circumstances.

Last month, Vale School District officials yanked the high school’s yearbook after some found the words and phrases on the cover offensive.

The 2022-23 yearbook cover is a collage of more than 80 words illustrating its theme, “our small town feeling.” The front and back cover includes words like “togetherness,” “peaceful,” and “leadership,” but also words like “racism” and “inbred.”

In a letter posted to the Vale School District Facebook page last month, Alisha McBride, Vale superintendent, wrote that the high school yearbook had words and phrases that “may elicit negative emotions for students, staff and the Vale community.”

McBride wrote that those who placed orders would receive new yearbooks when they arrived and that the district asked people to return copies of the current yearbook to the high school.

In a Thursday, Sept. 14 email, McBride said the district no longer sought copies of the yearbooks. Of the 230 copies that went out, McBride said the district was “in possession” of 118 copies. It remains unclear how many copies were returned and how many people ordered a revised version.

She said students with “support from staff” would determine if words or phrases would be added, removed, or modified to create a cover that aligns with the theme. McBride did not say when the revised version would be ready for publication.

Last month, McBride said the district was pulling the yearbook because the cover was defamatory, which — if true — is not protected student speech under the state law or the district’s policy. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines defamation as “the act of communicating false statements about a person that injure the reputation of that person.”

The law center wrote that statements of “opinion or hyperbole” cannot be defamatory.

“While school officials may disagree with a student journalist’s statements or feel they reflect poorly on the school, that alone does not constitute defamation,” the law center wrote. “As of yet, we are aware of no evidence presented by VSD officials that the yearbook cover would constitute libel.”

The law center wrote that libel ­– the publication of words and pictures harming a person’s reputation – and slander- the spoken version of defamation – are legal concepts and involve publishing false statements that seriously damage someone’s reputation.

The law center wrote that Oregon’s statute that student journalists determine the content of school-sponsored media except in narrowly defined situations, such as if the content is defamatory, is clear.

With that, the law center wrote that it would be “remiss” if it did not note that the district’s freedom of expression policy runs afoul of the state’s law surrounding press freedom of high school and college journalists.

“VSD’s policy prohibits speech protected under state law,” the law center wrote, “and it is undoubtedly adding to the district’s confusion about school officials’ abilities to overrule the students’ legal right to determine the content of student media.”

For her part, McBride said the district received the letter and that she was unsure if district officials would respond.

The law center offered the district guidance and advice on how to amend its freedom of expression policy. The law center and the Journalism Education Association, a national nonprofit organization of teachers, shared a copy of a model policy that would resolve the high school campus issue.

“We know that no VSD official intends to violate the law or the rights of student journalists,” the law center wrote. “Both of our organizations stand ready to speak with you about these issues, as well as to help educate your district officials about the law and your students about their rights.”

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