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Student journalists say they're fighting for First Amendment rights in a central Florida school

Student Journalists at Lyman High School faced censorship from the Seminole County School Board in regards of their spread covering a HB 1557 walkout. (Molly Cooper/WUFT News)
Student Journalists at Lyman High School faced censorship from the Seminole County School Board in regards of their spread covering a HB 1557 walkout. (Molly Cooper/WUFT News)

The smell of fresh paper filled the room as the Lyman High School yearbook staff rushed to unpack the boxes of the new yearbook they worked hard on throughout the year.

Their excitement quickly turned to confusion after Principal Michael Hunter released a statement on Monday, May 9, saying that the distribution of yearbooks was delayed due to a spread that covered the HB 1557: Parental Rights in Education walkout needed to be covered as it did not meet Seminole County School Board Policies.

On this spread, the staff pictured students rallying together holding pride flags and signs in opposition to the new bill. This new bill bans teachers in kindergarten through third grade from teaching or discussing topics related to LGBT.

“The censorship was extremely frustrating and broke my heart,” Madi Koesler, college yearbook volunteer, said. “The students were fighting to be heard and to be allowed to express themselves at school. By covering the photos up, the school board was confirming the students’ fears.”

Caught by surprise by the principal and school board’s decision, co-editor in chief Skye Tiedemann and her staff did not understand why the pictures needed to be censored since reporting on what happens at school falls under the role of a student journalist.

The staff believed that since Hunter sent out an email to Lyman faculty acknowledging the walkout and not putting a stop to it that reporting on the walkout would not have been a problem.

According to Michael Lawrence, Seminole County School Board’s Communications Officer, the school board and the principal possess the ability to regulate what school-sponsored publications print. Since the context of the spread not specifically the pictures created an assumption that the school sponsored the walkout, they were entitled to make the decision to cover the spread.

Policy 5722 of Seminole County School Board’s policy manual says, “All school-sponsored student publications and productions are nonpublic forums. While students may address matters of interest or concern to their readers/viewers, as nonpublic forums, the style and content of the student publications and productions can be regulated for legitimate pedagogical, school-related reasons. School officials shall routinely and systematically review and, if necessary, restrict the style and/or content of all school-sponsored student publications and productions prior to publication/performance in a reasonable manner that is neutral as to the viewpoint of the speaker.”

Taking action, Koesler used social media to spread the campaign #StopTheStickers. In her posts, she included the yearbook spread and statements from Hunter. Some Seminole County Public School alumni like Cory Nazario participated in spreading the word.

“I was pretty upset about it honestly, just because that is where I grew up and I knew growing up as an LGBT kid that you have that fear. It was fine when I was growing up but then the kids after me have to deal with that still,” Nazario said. “I just feel bad for them because you think things would be getting better, but they are not.”

Due to her posts, this situation gained local and national attention fast. The Florida Scholastic Press Association and Student Press Law Center both released statements in Koesler’s favor urging the school board and Hunter to overturn their decisions.

“Instead of punishing these journalists for the work they did accurately covering the walkout that happened on the school’s campus,  Mr. Hunter and the Seminole County School Board should be encouraging and providing them authentic opportunities to report on the lives around them in a safe and protected environment embracing the freedoms of the First Amendment,” FSPA said in a statement.

The attention and support that the staff received pushed them to attend the May 10 school board meeting and fight for their yearbook. Thirty people attended the meeting in support of the staff, some came from other Seminole County Schools. A few went to school at Oviedo High School and Hagerty High School where they covered the same event and did not face censorship.

Once the public comments section of the meeting came around, the majority of the people advocated for Lyman’s yearbook. In the end, the school board compromised and decided to place small stickers on the spread that stated that the school did not sponsor the walkout.

“You never are going to be fully happy with a compromise because it is never fully your way. We came to terms with it and we are just really happy that the pictures were not being covered because that would be such a bad image and it would be silencing the community,” Tiedemann said.

With HB 1557 going into effect on July 1, 2022, Koesler and Nazario believe that more situations like this one will happen in the future.

“I think this is just a taste of what’s to come in the future, especially because of HB 1557. I hope that does not deter students from utilizing their First Amendment rights,” Koesler said.

Molly is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.