INDIANA — Students met with a school official Monday to discuss the controversy over an opinion article on societal attitudes about homosexuality published in an East Allen County School District student newspaper that ultimately led to a principal’s demand for future prior review of the publication.
Megan Chase, a sophomore at Woodlan Junior-Senior High School and writer for The Tomahawk, wrote a column for the newspaper’s Jan. 19 issue that discussed tolerance for and the religious objections to homosexuality.
After distribution, Principal Edwin Yoder contacted the newspaper and adviser through a letter that said he must review all issues prior to printing, according to Assistant Superintendent Andy Melin.
Amy Sorrell, the Tomahawk‘s adviser, also received a written warning for “insubordination and not carrying out her responsibilities as a teacher” that threatened disciplinary action or possible termination should another incident like this occur, according to the Journal Gazette, a community newspaper in Fort Wayne, Ind.
Speaking on behalf of Yoder, school district attorney Tim McCaulay said that the conflict is one of personnel not following the rules, because the newspaper’s adviser did not bring the potentially controversial piece to the principal.
“The principal has never expressed any concern about the content of the article or the way it was written,” McCaulay said. “The principal had adopted a strategy for the adviser to bring articles to him that might be controversial.”
Sorrell could not be reached for comment before press time.
McCaulay said that the district’s student publications and speech policy is modeled after the 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, which said public school administrators have greater authority to control the content of some student publications. The district’s policy stipulates that its student newspapers are not public forums and should contain “articles or commentaries in a school-sponsored publication or production maintain a level of ‘responsible journalism’ and ‘journalistic integrity.’ ”
The newspaper staff sought to have the school board review the student publication policy, but was denied at a board meeting Feb. 20. School District Superintendent Kay Novotny told the students to meet with Melin.
Editor Cortney Carpenter and Assistant Editor Sara Randall maintain that the administration’s decision is a reflection of their opinion on what content should be printed. Carpenter said the students were originally told by Yoder that the topic was “too mature” for the younger students attending the junior-senior high school, while Melin said the problem is the way the topic was covered.
“[Melin and Yoder] really didn’t have the same story,” Carpenter said.
Melin said that yesterday’s meeting with the students allowed everyone to express their opinions, discuss the district’s reasoning for implementing prior review and also brainstorm possible solutions. Sorrell did not attend the meeting.
“Communication between the principal and the student staff is an area we need to look at,” Melin said. “That’s one of the things [the students] said that they would like to see improve.” He also said that the newspaper deadlines need to be considered so that the principal can meet his obligation without impeding the Tomahawk staff’s job.
Melin said he plans to write a prior review policy by March 5, and that students can submit suggestions if they are “not satisfied” with it. He did not say what the new prior review policy would consist of.
Randall said that Melin suggested the staff also attempt to rewrite the newspaper’s editorial policy. She also said that the discussion at the meeting was repetitive of what they had already been told and it “didn’t seem to go anywhere.”
Carpenter said she is pleased to know that the students will be involved in the policy revision process, and she intends on following through with this issue because she doesn’t want to work for a newspaper that undergoes prior review.
“I don’t think it can be resolved until we are taken off prior review,” Carpenter said. “I’m not satisfied with how things are going yet. I will personally continue pursuing it if I have to.”
By Erica Hudock, SPLC staff writer