Sunday, February 25, 2007

Fort Wayne News-Sentinel Gets It On Gay Tolerance

Unlike its rival newspaper, the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, the News-Sentinel understands why it was wrong for Woodlan school administrators to censor the school's newspaper after it published an editorial advocating gay tolerance. While the Journal Gazette simply focused on the censorship, the News-Sentinel took dead aim at the absurdity of the school administrators' position that 10th-grader Megan Chase's opinion piece was "inappropriate" and "not balanced." "By extension, some people might look at the entire high school as a social backwater," the editorial reads. As to the silliness of the editorial not being balanced, the editorial reads:

Balance? What could Yoder or Melin be thinking? Were Sorrell and Chase supposed to find a student to argue in favor of mocking or ostracizing gay kids to offer some “balance” to a call for tolerance? Appropriateness? There are no safer-sex pointers or lurid descriptions in Chase’s column. It doesn’t get any more explicit than acknowledging that some people feel desire for members of their own gender.


Here is the full text of the editorial:

Woodlan High School journalism adviser Amy Sorrell and her students are in a fight with Woodlan Principal Edwin Yoder. Unfortunately for them, Yoder has the law, school board policy and long precedent on his side. But Yoder’s hitting the panic button over such an inoffensive expression of good will seems to be an overreaction. By extension, some people might look at the entire high school as a social backwater; if so, that would be the greatest harm to come from this episode.

Last month, Woodlan’s newspaper, The Tomahawk, published an opinion piece by Megan Chase, which we reprint today as a guest column elsewhere on this page. After Yoder saw Chase’s commentary, he ordered Sorrell to submit future issues of The Tomahawk to him for his review before they were published.

This tussle over a gentle call for greater acceptance of gay and lesbian students should reinforce a few points about high school press freedom. It’s likely that many disputes between school administrators and newspaper staffs and advisers arise because the folks who produce the newspapers look at principals as if they were the government and principals’ “prior review” equals the “prior restraint” of government barring the publication of a newspaper.

That’s a flawed comparison. A principal is much more like a publisher. A publisher is entitled to use his judgment in deciding what a newspaper will or will not print. A publisher is responsible not only to readers and to members of the newspaper staff, but also to the owners of a newspaper.

In the case of a high school paper, that means being responsible to taxpayers who support the school system. In the worst case – one that isn’t hard to imagine – a school system could be sued because a student newspaper had libeled someone. If only to protect the integrity and financial interests of a school district, a principal has good cause to review student publications before they are distributed.

High school journalists enjoy some protection under the law. The 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Hazelwood vs. Kuhlmeier held that material in a “curricular” newspaper could be censored if a school could reasonably argue that publication would interfere with some part of the educational mission. But the East Allen County Schools board has a policy giving administrators strong authority over publications, saying the district “will not tolerate text or commentary in school-sponsored publications or productions that ... is socially inappropriate due to the maturity of students...”

In some schools, there’s longstanding trust between a principal and a journalism adviser, so that a principal would feel no need to personally scrutinize every issue. From what Sorrell told The News-Sentinel’s Ese Isiorho, that was the way things worked between her and Yoder before the homosexuality column was published last month. She ran what she thought were sensitive topics past him for his review in the past.

Sorrell said she didn’t “think the homosexuality thing would be a problem.” Sorrell was right. Asking students to be understanding and tolerant of their peers who are gays or lesbians shouldn’t be a problem. To many teenagers today, displays of anti-homosexual prejudice seem as freakishly outdated as blatant racism.

Yoder gave Sorrell a written warning that said any other incidents could lead to disciplinary action, including being fired.

Yoder compounds the problem by responding to reporters only through Andy Melin, EACS assistant superintendent, instead of standing up for himself.

“It’s not the topic of the article,” Melin said. “It’s the content of the article in terms of its level of its appropriateness and its balance. You have seventh- and eighth-graders who are far less mature than 11th- and 12th-graders.”

Balance? What could Yoder or Melin be thinking? Were Sorrell and Chase supposed to find a student to argue in favor of mocking or ostracizing gay kids to offer some “balance” to a call for tolerance? Appropriateness? There are no safer-sex pointers or lurid descriptions in Chase’s column. It doesn’t get any more explicit than acknowledging that some people feel desire for members of their own gender.

What seventh-grader wouldn’t know that some people are homosexual? Aren’t openly gay people characters in television shows, hosts of talk shows, athletes, politicians, writers and actors? Isn’t the General Assembly debating a constitutional amendment that would outlaw same-sex marriages? Do newspapers and TV signals not make it all the way out to that corner of the county?

Of course students at Woodlan know some people are gay. Anyone who knows anything about Woodlan High School knows that its mostly rural students have a reputation as hardworking, bright kids. Eighty percent pass the ISTEP+ tests; of the 13 public high schools in the county, only Leo, Carroll and Homestead have larger percentages of students passing ISTEP+ tests.
We might quibble with Chase’s use of statistics and her sometimes simplistic view of sexuality and social adjustment, but in the end, Chase’s opinion piece is about as controversial as urging Woodlan students to be nice to their neighbors. We trust most students received it that way. Most parents did, too, apparently; as of Tuesday, Sorrell and Melin said they had received no complaints about the column.

Yoder and other high school principals have the right to control newspapers published by the schools. As for every principal exercising that control prudently, we can only hope, and we’re frequently disappointed.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Damn radical whippersnapper advocating radical slogans like "Love thy neighbors as thyself" .... harrumph! Christians like Yoder must stamp out such subversive ideas immediately!

Wilson46201 said...

It's sad that Gary's lengthy and thoughtful pieces about LGBT rights get so few comments. Let him post something about Black politicians and the anonymous racists come running and posting copiously!

Rather sad, really...

lori said...

This girl is a hero and our community needs to recognize she and her teacher as such. If I had the money I would give her a full ride to the college of her choice.

new2fw said...

Why is tolerance a one-way street. Of course the author, nor her advisor should not have found a counter "gay-bashing" opinion. Rather a view from a student that would most assuredly represent a block of students who oppose gay marriage because of their deep faith. I am so tired of the "Where's your tolerance you bible thumping, creation believing, family oriented, God fearing kooks? Today's tolerant world has no room for YOUR beliefs" mentality. If you want people on the other side of the issue to tolerate your beliefs and sway public opinion to your side, find some common ground and work it from there. Don't ask for tolerance when you absolutely have none for the other side.