- Jan 16, 2006
- Reaction score
- Vicksburg, MS
That doesn't seem to make a lot of sense now, does it?Gay-rights article stirs debate over student freedoms
Teacher's suspension raises question over reach of schools' editorial control
By Rebecca Neal
WOODBURN, Ind. -- Amy Sorrell figured the articles on teen pregnancy, teen motherhood and sexually transmitted diseases would be controversial, so she submitted them to her principal before publishing.
But the Woodlan Junior-Senior High School teacher didn't preapprove a student column calling for tolerance toward gays and lesbians that appeared in the same edition of the school paper.
Little did she know, that piece would make state and national news -- and get her suspended from her job this month.
"If we can talk about herpes and gonorrhea on one page, we should be able to talk about tolerance on the next page," says Sorrell, who doesn't believe she did anything wrong.
The controversy in this northeast Indiana town has found its way to national media outlets and has raised objections and concern from national journalism groups.
The case has also triggered debate over how much freedom student publications should have and how much editorial control principals should wield.
At this school 25 miles east of Fort Wayne, that debate has been largely one-sided. Officials there have had little comment, maintaining that Sorrell's case is a personnel matter.
Sorrell was suspended March 19, exactly two months after The Tomahawk ran a column by sophomore Megan Chase about a friend who had recently told Chase she was gay.
Principal Ed Yoder said the column's content wasn't suitable for the school paper, which serves students in Grades 7-12.
"I have yet to hear a parent complain about the article. As far as I know, this is just coming from the administration," said Sorrell, 30.
She is on paid leave, awaiting the outcome of further hearings by district officials, and was interviewed at Higher Grounds Coffee House in New Haven, a town nestled between Fort Wayne and Woodburn.
Yoder, however, seems to be on solid legal ground for taking action on what he considers a violation of school rules.
An East Allen County Schools policy says principals are the publishers of school newspapers and allows them to edit or remove stories, a move that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled constitutional, said one Indiana legal scholar.
"There's no doubt to the constitutionality of that, since it's a school activity," said Henry Karlson, a law professor at the Indiana University School of Law-Indianapolis. "Like any other part of the curriculum, and a student newspaper is part of the curriculum of a class, the principal has control."
The landmark student newspaper Supreme Court case, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, requires school officials to demonstrate a reasonable educational justification before editing or removing stories.
Karlson said the column could be seen as disruptive to the school environment and that Yoder likely met the Hazelwood requirement when he said the column was unsuitable for younger students.
Such controversies surrounding high school newspapers aren't uncommon in Indiana. In 2005, the Wayne Township School Board in Indianapolis passed a new policy stating that student newspapers could not publish values contrary to those of the district and community.
The policy was developed in response to a Ben Davis High School newspaper editorial about immigration.
And in 2004, a Franklin Central High School teacher, Chad Tuley, was removed as the school newspaper's adviser after the newspaper published an article about a student's arrest.
The district later reached a financial settlement with Tuley over that incident.
Some states have addressed the relationship between schools and student publications by giving student journalists the same rights as professional journalists.
At least six states have passed such laws, but a free-expression bill died in an Indiana Senate committee in 1991.
In Woodlan's case, officials in East Allen schools are working to clarify language of a student publications policy that's been in place since 2003.
"We want to protect them and not restrict them," said Andy Melin, East Allen's assistant superintendent for secondary education and technology. "The principal is not supposed to be so ingrained in the newspaper that he forces major changes. The goal is to have the principal know about everything in case there is the potential for an article to harm the school or a student."
While there is little debate about whether Yoder had the right to exercise editorial control, some area residents are debating whether he did the right thing by suspending Sorrell.
Christina Page was one of dozens of parents who turned out in support of Sorrell at a recent East Allen school board meeting but was not allowed to speak.
Page, the mother of a former Woodlan journalism student, said the administration is needlessly trying to shelter students.
"With regards to the seventh- and eighth-graders, as far as I'm concerned, they've already heard much worse," she said, adding that it's mainly Woodlan parents, not the community at large, who are interested in the issue.
Megan Chase, author of the column, said the 700-student, rural school is in a conservative community, but she said she has heard few people speak out against her column.
"I've got a lot of support. I've had way more support than criticism," said Megan, 15.
For her part, Sorrell insists she wasn't trying to stir up a debate over student journalism. She had submitted the articles on teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases to Yoder for his opinion before publication Jan. 19.
Sorrell said she didn't think the column on tolerance toward gays would be controversial and was more concerned about how Yoder would react to the teen pregnancy articles.
She said Yoder read the stories on teen sex and told the paper's editor, Cortney Carpenter, that she had done a good job on them.
Karlson says Sorrell should have been more aware of the community's sensibilities before publishing the column, adding that the debate in the General Assembly surrounding a ban on same-sex marriage shows how tempers can flare over the issue.
"Anyone who thinks an article on homosexuality in Indiana isn't controversial isn't a competent person," he said.
After publishing a more restrained edition of the paper in the weeks after the Jan. 19 issue, students chose to cease publishing, maintaining that Yoder took too long to return proofs of the paper, Sorrell said.
After placing Sorrell on indefinite leave March 19, he ordered the students to resume printing and include a copy of the district's policy in the paper.
Three of the seven members of the newspaper staff resigned, including the editor. Carpenter, who now questions her plans for a career in journalism, said she's disappointed that the school district is quieting students and leaving a teacher in doubt about her future.
"I think it's an attempt to shut down opposing viewpoints," said Carpenter, 17. "It's an act of censorship, and they're trying to mute viewpoints they don't agree with."