School: ‘Tolerance’ editorial will not be tolerated

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Officials at East Allen County Schools in Indiana are doing a pretty good job of educating their students about the values of free speech, free press and other parts of the First Amendment — even though it seems they didn’t intend to.

Sophomore Megan Chase wrote an opinion in January in the Woodlan Junior-Senior High School student newspaper, the Woodlan Tomahawk, in which she asked her fellow students not to “look down” on or “make fun” of gays in school. Citing national statistics, she expressed concern that gay students who were pressured either to hide or renounce their sexuality could be driven to suicide. And she concluded by asking if it would be “so hard to just accept them as human beings that have feelings like anyone else?”

One could begin by asking why school officials would react negatively to the column at all. Chase’s article contained not a scintilla of vulgarity or obscenity (or libel or slander, for that matter) — not even a description of homosexuality beyond the phrase “noticing people of the same sex as you.” She appears to have done research before writing and included facts to back up her concerns. And Chase’s column apparently did not raise any student or parental ire when published.

But react they did. School authorities promulgated a new district policy establishing a rigid system of prior review, declaring principals the publishers of the school papers. And they are seeking to fire Tomahawk adviser Amy Sorrell for not showing Chase’s column in advance to Principal Edwin Yoder as potentially controversial, and for “insubordination” in resisting the newly-advanced prior review policy.

Specifically, according to news reports, school administrators also have said to the Tomahawk staff that the column was “biased,” discussed a subject inappropriate for younger students, and lacked support and balance in the way it was written.

Sorrell has said she didn’t think to pass the column by Yoder because she didn’t think a column on tolerance was controversial. She told a WOWO radio interviewer that she also is accused of having changed curriculum by allowing students in her classes to study First Amendment cases.

As so often happens when government tries to act as a newspaper editor or publisher, the issues get tangled, confusing and counterproductive. Yoder and others are being called censors; Sorrell may lose her job. Students are reported to have stopped work on new Tomahawk issues. All over a student’s asking others to be tolerant of those different from themselves. The ironies would be humorous if the issues weren’t so serious.

If Principal Yoder and his colleagues think Sorrell insubordinate for having her charges study First Amendment law, consider that the controversy has made it all the more likely that her pupils now will probably know far more about a host of Supreme Court student-speech cases — including Tinker and Hazelwood and perhaps some day Sorrell — than otherwise would have happened.

Sorrell has become a journalistic rallying point for those who oppose prior-review policies, even though she concedes in interviews that she has shown Yoder other articles in advance of publication, including one about teen pregnancy in the same edition as the column in question.

John Krull, president of the Indiana Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, said in a recent guest column on FortWayne.com that setting up Yoder as publisher may give him editorial control, but also makes the educator legally responsible for the newspaper’s content, including actions for libel.

And of course, Chase’s column is now likely the most-read and certainly the most widely circulated bit of writing ever to appear in this student newspaper.

For their part, school board members are reported to have refused to talk about the issue with interested parents, students and teachers at a recent meeting. Thus, talk about the issue was relegated to newspapers, radio programs, online publications — essentially anywhere but a public meeting attended by the public to discuss public policy. That attitude would seem to be dismissive of two more First Amendment rights, assembly and petition.

At least one local newspaper columnist has opined that in “the real world,” writers such as himself have editors who change stories and read them prior to publication. That view summarily dismisses the vast difference between editorial judgments by independent journalists and the exercise of editorial control by public officials, which the framers of the Bill of Rights worked so hard to prevent.

There also are “teachable moments” that undeniably come from this flap. A free voice is not easily stilled, even when the voice is young. The First Amendment may protect your right to speak and write freely, but even calling for tolerance may bring down the heavy hand of the State.

And while the Tinker case provided that students do not automatically lose their First Amendment rights at the schoolhouse door, it remains to be seen whether public school pupils have to park their basic freedoms in the principal’s office until they graduate.

Gene Policinski is vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, VA 22209. E-mail: gpolicinski@fac.org.

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