BIGELOW, Ark. (AP) — Officials at an Arkansas high school physically tore out pages from the school's published yearbook that included references to the U.S. Capitol riot, George Floyd and COVID-19, claiming "community backlash," an action the Student Press Law Center condemned as censorship.
The SPLC, a nonprofit that defends the First Amendment rights of student journalists and their advisers at high school and college levels, and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette both requested documentation regarding the community backlash.
Hadar Harris, executive director of SPLC, said when asked for documentation regarding the community backlash, Heidi Wilson, the superintendent at East End School District, could not produce any.
“I have done an extensive search and I don’t have anything responsive,” Wilson replied in an email to the newspaper on Aug. 10.
“It is painfully clear that you did not remove these pages from the yearbook for any legally justifiable reason,” wrote Harris in an email Friday to Wilson. “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."
According to the Democrat-Gazette, it appeared the two-page timeline depicting news events from 2020 and 2021, including the U.S. Capitol riot and the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Daunte Wright, were ripped out by hand.
“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,” wrote Harris.
The yearbook adviser, Meghan Clarke Walton, resigned over the censorship issue. She also taught English and journalism at the school.
“I did not authorize the removal of these pages, nor do I support it in any way," she said. "Deciding to resign was the most difficult decision I have ever made. However, I needed to stand up for myself and for the students who created that yearbook spread.”
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.
In the letter, Harris also demands administrators to reprint the censored pages of the yearbook along with a written apology, “strongly suggesting" the reprint and apology be distributed by Sept. 15.
Wilson could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
The Associated Press