Woodlan editorial on gays ignites firestorm
Principal demands prior review, warns teacher
By Kelly Soderlund
The Journal Gazette
A student editorial in the Woodlan Junior-Senior High School newspaper calling for more tolerance for gays and lesbians sparked the principal to seek approval of each edition before it goes to print and issue a written warning against the journalism teacher.
About 10 students attended the East Allen County Schools board meeting Tuesday night to ask members whether the issue could be put on the next meeting’s agenda. Superintendent Kay Novotny denied their request and suggested they meet with Assistant Superintendent Andy Melin instead.
Sophomore Megan Chase wrote an opinion piece – her first for the newspaper – that appeared in the Jan. 19 issue of the Woodlan Tomahawk that questioned people who believe it’s wrong to be gay or lesbian. Chase said she wrote the piece after a friend disclosed to her he was gay.
“I can only imagine how hard it would be to come out as homosexual in today’s society,” Chase wrote. “I think it is so wrong to look down on those people, or to make fun of them, just because they have a different sexuality than you. There is nothing wrong with them or their brain; they’re just different than you.”
Principal Edwin Yoder wrote a letter to the newspaper staff and journalism teacher Amy Sorrell insisting he sign off on every issue. Sorrell and the students contacted the Student Press Law Center, an advocacy group for student newspapers, which advised them to appeal the decision.
Last week, Yoder issued Sorrell a written warning for insubordination and not carrying out her responsibilities as a teacher. He accused her of exposing Woodlan students, who are in grades seven through 12, to inappropriate material and said if she did not comply with his orders she could be fired.
Yoder would not comment for this story, but Melin, who said he hasn’t read the editorial, said school officials do not have an issue with the topic but with the lack of balance and thoroughness in the opinion piece. Sorrell also should have consulted with Yoder before the article was printed, Melin said.
Melin would not comment on any disciplinary actions taken against Sorrell.
The students also asked the EACS board to clarify its policy on tolerance of gays and lesbians, which it did not address. Melin said there is no policy and didn’t think the board should have to go as far as to write one. Melin said EACS has had a policy since 2003 that states principals have the authority to review each issue of a student publication before it goes to print. It’s up to the individual principal how he or she wants to enforce it, Melin said.
According to its Web site, the Journalism Education Association strongly opposes prior review.
Prior to the editorial being published, Melin said Yoder asked Sorrell to bring to him any stories she thought would be controversial. In fact, Sorrell brought Yoder a piece on teen pregnancy that appeared in the same edition.
“I didn’t think it was going to be an issue at all. I didn’t think anybody would be upset about it,” Sorrell said of the editorial on gays and lesbians. She wrote a rebuttal to Yoder’s warning and sent it to him and Novotny.
Melin cited the 1988 Supreme Court case, Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, which ruled St. Louis school officials had the authority to censor stories about teen pregnancy and divorce in its high school newspaper.
Adam Goldstein, attorney at the Student Press Law Center, said the Woodlan situation does not fall under the Supreme Court precedent, which permits a school to interfere with student expression only when it can provide a legitimate educational basis for doing so.
In the Hazelwood case, school officials were able to prove the articles went against what was being taught in the classroom.
“If students are not being taught tolerance in the classroom, their problem is much larger than this particular incident,” Goldstein said.
Yoder is practicing an illegal form of censorship, Goldstein said, and the Student Press Law Center has available attorneys who are willing to donate their time if the Woodlan students take the case to court.
Unbelievable — suggesting that gay and lesbian students shouldn’t be bullied and harassed is unacceptable in school? So that logically means the School Administration is in favor of gay and lesbian students being bullied and harassed?