Photos in North Fort Myers High School yearbook draw controversy

Published: May 19, 2022 5:19 PM EDT
Updated: May 20, 2022 8:58 AM EDT

Protests are going down in the yearbooks. Students’ bold words for Governor DeSantis over the so-called ‘don’t say gay‘ law are now printed on paper with pictures from the walk-outs against the law, back when it was still a bill, in North Fort Myers High School yearbooks.

Lee County schools say students put the yearbook together, a staff advisor reviewed it, and the North Fort Myers High School principal gave her stamp of approval all before the controversial bill became law.

Why allow photos targeting the governor? Because the photos are from a student protest that the district says was 100% legally protected free speech.

A district spokesperson said case law motivated this decision. In Tinker vs. Demoines, the Supreme Court ruled that students do not lose their right to free speech in public schools if it does not disrupt learning.

In March 2022, North Fort Myers High School students walked out of class to protest the Parental Rights in Education bill before the governor signed it into law.

In the sea of students was a poster that read, “My gay moms could take Ron DeSantis.” Not unusual for a protest, but maybe for a yearbook.

“First of all, the yearbook is student-led,” said Debbie Jordan, the Lee County School Board chair.

Lee County schools allowed the photo’s publication and others in the North Fort Myers 2022 yearbook.

“It was the kids, you know, sharing their lives, what they have, what they have dealt with for the year. They were exercising their free speech,” said Jordan.

“I believe in freedom of speech, of course. But I believe that it shows poor judgment on administrators and the staff,” said school board member Melisa Giovannelli.

Unlike Jordan, though, Giovannelli is on fire that this picture ended up in a yearbook. She asked where the “Other side” was and said it should be represented, but there was never a walk-out or demonstration supporting the measure at the school.

“I’m sure there were students that supported it. It is a student-led yearbook, but students aren’t adults, are they? I mean, most of them, they’re underage unless they’re 18 years old. So they’re so there is supervision, and I think it lacked judgment,” said Giovannelli.

An attorney specializing in first amendment cases said she agreed with the district’s interpretation.

Giovanelli said the new superintendent is looking at putting new yearbook policies in place.