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Better seen and
not heard?

Better seen and
not heard?

Censorship

High school students across the country are running into the same roadblocks, no matter where their beliefs fall: Must they leave their First Amendment rights at the schoolhouse gate?

For two months Amy Sorrell's job as an English and journalism teacher at Woodlan High School in Woodburn, Ind., was on the line. She didn't have an affair with a student, nor was she slipping brandy into her coffee. Sorrell, 30, simply OK'd a short op-ed in the school newspaper.

"I can only imagine how hard it would be to come out as homosexual in today's society," sophomore Megan Chase wrote in the January 19 issue of The Tomahawk, reacting to a friend's having come out to her. "There is nothing wrong with them or their brain; they're just different than you."

Shortly after the newspaper hit the cafeteria, Sorrell says, she received an e-mail from Woodlan principal Ed Yoder reminding her to run all contentious articles by him. On January 29, Sorrell says, she received a letter from the school brass informing her that all future Tomahawk articles would have to be reviewed before going to print, then a letter February 12 accusing her of insubordination. On March 19, Sorrell, who had taught at the school for half of her eight-year career, was suspended without warning.

Andrew Melin, an assistant superintendent for Woodlan's school district, says that Sorrell was suspended not because of the column's content but because she failed to run it by Yoder.

"Homosexuality anywhere can be a sensitive topic, and there are going to be people who fall on all sides of that issue," Melin tells The Advocate. "The principal is ultimately responsible for what is in the content of any school publication."

Melin points out that students as young as 11 read the paper.

Sorrell says the content was appropriate for students of all ages. "I just thought that it was going to prompt discussion," she says. "And yes, there are people who don't agree with [homosexuality], but that's the nature of the newspaper. That whole article is about tolerance. That's the main gist of it: Just be nice. I have a sixth-grade son myself. I think my sixth-grade son can read it and understand."

At least six states have laws that protect high school journalists from administrative censorship; Indiana is not among them. Sorrell says that on February 8--days before the insubordination letter arrived--the Tomahawk staff she oversaw asked for a meeting with Yoder to discuss freedom of expression; he refused, though he met individually with the paper's editor.

Sorrell's attorneys settled with the school district in late April. She'll keep her job as an English teacher. However, to stay in the district she must transfer to another school, and she can't advise its student newspaper.

David Hudson, an attorney for the First Amendment Center, says many schools have been grappling with student expression on all fronts, especially as related to LGBT topics. "It is one of the major issues of our time, so that is not surprising that these free-expression controversies are occurring," Hudson says.

On 2004's National Day of Silence, San Diego-area high school student Tyler Chase Harper wore a homemade shirt to school. On the back was written "Homosexuality is shameful"; on the front, "I will not accept what God has condemned." The next day he wore the same T-shirt, with "Be ashamed, our school embraced" instead of "I will not accept."

On the second day school officials told him to take off the shirt, arguing that it violated their dress code, which bans promotion or portrayal of "violence or hate behavior." When Harper refused, he was removed from class and assigned to the front office to complete his day's remaining schoolwork. He later sued the Poway Unified School District, seeking an injunction against the school. He lost in federal court but won in the ninth circuit appeals court. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which nullified the ruling because by then he'd graduated anyway.

The case of Harper--now a student at Wheaton College, a Christian school in Illinois--is before the ninth appellate court again. Why so persistent? It could be a case precedent. Kevin Theriot, a lawyer with the conservative Alliance Defense Fund, said he and his client Harper are fighting for all students' civil liberties.

"The main point of the case is free speech, and students have their right to be heard on campus," Theriot said. "Just because other students don't agree doesn't mean that he can't voice [his opinions]."

Harper's appeal could be bolstered by Chambers v. Babbitt, a 2001 Minnesota case in which a federal district court ruled that a public high school student had the right to wear a shirt with the words "Straight Pride". Justice Donovan Frank wrote in his opinion that the school failed to prove that the shirt disrupted school activities.

Are schools displaying a double standard? Is gay-friendly speech a problem, while antigay speech is protected by law? In a school environment that's supposed to be free, young people have to wonder.

Visit FortWayne.com to see Megan Chase's column in its entirety.

Advocate Magazine - KehlaniAdvocate Magazine - Gus Kenworthy

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