Liberty High to reprint volume after free speech concerns were raised
BRENTWOOD – God will have a place in this year’s Liberty High School yearbook.
Liberty Union High School District officials have changed their stance on religious references in yearbook advertisements after parents raised concerns about freedom of speech constraints.
On Wednesday, as students finished assembling the 450-page annual, school officials decided they will pay the publisher $8,000 to reprint in their original form paid ads that the yearbook staff had changed to remove any mention of God, Jesus Christ, holy or other religious words or passages.
“Religious references aren’t going to be arbitrarily screened out. This situation won’t happen again in the future,” Superintendent Dan Smith said. “To me, it’s one of those classic situations where good intentions were not received in the way they were meant.”
In January, Jeff and Julie Renner bought a $175 ad to congratulate their son on his upcoming graduation that included the sentence “May God bless your life.” They learned from a parent later that month that ads that had any religious message were modified. When the Renners asked about their ad, they found out that “God” was changed to “He.”
“If they take certain references out, it takes the meaning out, especially if they substitute words that have a different meaning,” Jeff Renner said. “For them willy-nilly to change all of the ads with no notice, no calls, no one knew anything about it, is sneaky.”
When he approached the school staff about the ad, Renner was offered a refund, which he declined. The Sacramento-based Pacific Justice Institute, which advocates for religious freedom, sent a letter to Smith on Friday that threatened a lawsuit if the district didn’t pay to reprint the original ads.
Matthew McReynolds, an attorney with the conservative legal group, said they wanted to avert any legal action and to correct the ads before it was too late.
The school district changed its policy to allow religious references at all schools about two weeks ago, said Liberty High Principal Tim Halloran.
For years, the staff of the yearbook edited out any reference to violence, gangs, drugs, alcohol and religion. The yearbook staff states in its advertising contract that it reserves the right to change any ad deemed inappropriate without notifying the buyer. There is no mention of religion.
The yearbook is part of a class taught by Lloyd Cornwell, who said he was told to clean up the publication when he became the adviser four years ago, as inappropriate material had been published. Next year, parents and students will be allowed to choose from six ads that have quotes, and at least one will have a spiritual tone, Cornwell said. It will alleviate problems and cut down on the work students have to do, he said.
Cornwell said he was disappointed about the decision to reprint the ads, but he was more concerned that the 1,500 students who ordered yearbooks wouldn’t receive them on time if the district got involved in a legal case. He added that he has pushed to make the yearbook follow national standards.
“This is a can of worms to allow anyone to say whatever they want,” he said. “Sorry, but the yearbook is not your soapbox to preach what you believe. It’s a student decision.”
Without a written policy that states religious ads aren’t allowed, the district might infringe on free speech, said Derek Shaffer, executive director of the Stanford Constitutional Law Center.
“There’s a serious First Amendment issue here,” he said. “The school is caught between a rock and a hard place. A school needs to be quite careful to not discriminate against religion or any speakers.”
The yearbook’s editors called the issue “ridiculous” and said their aim was to be fair to all students. Of the 253 ads students sold since they started taking orders in the summer, 25 had religious language in them.
Brian Melo, a 17-year-old junior, said although the class had beat its deadlines, reprinting pages brought more stress. It could delay when students receive yearbooks, which cost $65 and usually arrive the third week of May.
“We treat everyone the same, so it’s not like we persecuted one group,” said junior Sean Kipp, 17. “There’s a lot more going on about religion and that has gone with it in the last few years.”