Sunday, November 27, 2005

Just Say No To Free Speech In Mishawaka Schools

Mishawaka High School has told a lesbian couple who own a gay and lesbian bookstore that they may not advertise in the school’s student newspaper. The school’s newspaper adviser, Jeff Halicki, told co-owner Patti Henges that “school officials decided not to ‘expose our teens to your type of establishment,’” according to the South Bend Tribune.

The Tribune reports that “[Robin] Beck and Henges, who were married in a civil ceremony in Canada two years ago, opened the coffee shop and bookstore in Mishawaka's 100 Center last year to serve the region's gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered communities.” The student who accepted the bookstore’s advertisement added information about a weekly discussion group at the bookstore for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, and straight teenagers and young adults to the ad to be placed in the student newspaper.

The school’s problem with the bookstore’s ad was the question it posed of bringing up “sexuality” in a student publication. "I was uncomfortable putting content in front of our readers that discussed sex or sexual orientation," Halicki said. The school’s policy requires that student publications be “generally suitable” for all students. "We typically don't have sexuality discussions in a student publication," a school spokesman said. "There is concern that there would be concerns among parents, students and other members of the community who would read the newspaper . . . Our schools need to reflect the general views of the community," the spokesman said, adding that Mishawaka is a conservative community. "We would have more parents unhappy with (the advertisement) than would be pleased with that."

At least one legal expert believes the school’s actions may represent a First Amendment violation. "They have to present some legal justification," Mark Goodman of the Student Press Law Center told the Tribune in a telephone interview. "If the student (or advertiser) could show that this was in fact an attempt to silence this viewpoint, then that may very well be impermissible under the First Amendment."

The Tribune talked to several students who acknowledged that there are gay students at the school. “There are gay kids here, but I guess the administration doesn't want to talk about it," student Jessica Payne said.

The school’s principal, George Marzotto, astonishingly claimed that he had never heard of any students who wanted to publish stories about sexuality. Marzotto noted that the school was bound by the state standards (i.e., Advance America’s and Eric Miller’s standards), which implores schools to teach only abstinence. In practice, each school adopts its own standards according to Suzanne Crouch with the Indiana Department of Education. “Throughout Indiana, our communities range from very conservative to very liberal," Crouch told the Tribune in a telephone interview. "It does allow for each community to decide how it is going to teach sexuality."

For their part, the bookstore’s owners believe students need a “safe place” to talk about their sexual orientation and gender-related questions in the absence of schools fostering that discussion. Beck told the Tribune that at least one study “estimated that nine out of 10 students who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered are harassed each year in school, and 30 percent of those students attempt suicide.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The South Bend Tribune retracted the statements that Henges attributed to Halicki. It was poor reporting to attribute a quote to one primary party that was given by the other.
Make sure you also get the entire story.