LGBT content a target for censorship

Student newspapers are an important forum for discussing issues facing students. However, administrators have stepped in the way of students who want to report on LGBT issues affecting students.

In Berwyn, Pa., the staff of the Spoke newspaper at Conestoga High School got the administration’s attention after it published a series of three stories exploring the harassment of LGBT students throughout the year.

Spoke Editor-in-Chief Seth Zweifler said he believes the stories are part of what provoked the Tredyffrin/Easttown School Board to propose a new policy that could facilitate censorship.

As circulated at a June school board committee meeting, the policy states that the adviser must read and approve all stories before publication and a copy must be submitted to the principal for review prior to publication.

Zweifler, who wrote one of the stories called “Coming out in the classroom,” said the reports were well received by students and the community but that the administration may have had different feelings. Zweifler’s story followed two Conestoga students who came out about their sexual orientation both at school and at home.

“Basically what they’ve done is turned an 86-word policy into a 17-page policy and regulation proposal,” Zweifler said. “We feel fairly certain that the content of the policy … was in response to some of the content we published this year.”

Former Spoke Editor-in-Chief Henry Rome agreed with Zweifler and said administrators may be uncertain about a student’s ability to take on a sensitive issue.“There was controversy surrounding this piece because we handled a topic that society itself is oftentimes not entirely comfortable discussing,” Rome said. “But … our readers appreciated what we wrote.”

At Woodlan High School in Woodburn, Ind., the journalism adviser lost her job after the staff at the school’s newspaper published an editorial in 2007 that encouraged tolerance toward LGBT students.

Principal Ed Yoder said the editorial was unsuitable for younger students and accused Tomahawk adviser Amy Sorrell of neglecting her responsibilities in exposing her students to the issues.

Yoder declined to comment for this story.

Sorrell said she is not sure why the piece attracted controversy.

“I still don’t know quite who was upset [about the column],” Sorrell said. “Most of the parents I talked to were like, ‘Well yeah, don’t beat up kids in a hall. What’s the big deal?’ “

The students at Woodlan have been able to see the negative effects of LGBT speech censorship firsthand, Sorrell said.

“Students are learning about First Amendment rights from this experience,” Sorrell said. “And students need to understand their rights, regardless of the topic.”

Sorrell, who was given the 2007 Courage in Student Journalism Award after the incident, was forced to transfer to another school and was barred from teaching journalism for three years. She said community members rallied behind the students and submitted letters to the editor to local newspapers.

With the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) reporting that nearly 90 percent of LGBT students say they are harassed because of their sexual orientation, the issue is likely to be raised in the classroom at some point.

Daryl Presgraves, the public relations manager for GLSEN, said although there are signs the climate is slowly changing, administrators are still “looking the other way” when LGBT students face harassment at the hands of their peers. He said this makes it difficult for students to cover the issue in the student media.

“Many students still live in a place where educators deny there are even any LGBT students that attend their school,” Presgraves said. “When you have educators and principals that won’t even admit the LGBT students go to the school, it’s just that much harder to talk about LGBT issues in a fair and respectful way.”

Zweifler said the student newspaper is a good forum for reporting on these and other issues that are clearly facing students.

“I think if a newspaper really does make a courageous and honest decision to report on the real issue here, lives really can be changed, tolerance can be increased, and ignorance can really be destroyed,” Zweifler said.

By not allowing discussion on LGBT issues, administrators are preventing students from becoming part of an informed society, according to Tricia Herzfeld, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

“It isn’t good for the education of our students when we’re supposed to be raising an informed society that [is] supposed to be the next generation of leaders,” Herzfeld said. “Keeping information from them is never good for society in general.”

It is not just student journalists who face censorship. Administrators have punished students for supporting gay rights and raising the issue at school.

In 2007, a group of 11 students at Ponce de Leon High School in Ponce de Leon, Fla., found themselves being punished by the administration for expressing their support of gay rights. Students had written “GP” and “Gay Pride” on their arms with markers. Some students also wore homemade shirts with similar messages on them. The principal, David Davis, told the students they were being suspended for being part of a “Gay Pride” movement and for belonging to an “illegal organization.”

It took a courageous high school junior, the ACLU and a district judge to tell Davis he was wrong to punish students for their point of view.

Davis did not respond to requests for comment.

The actions by school administrators to silence speech about issues facing LGBT students can be detrimental to student development and social interaction according to Christine Sun, a senior counsel with the ACLU.

“[Censorship] is contributing to an atmosphere of intolerance toward LGBT students,” Sun said. She said the administrators need to make sure all viewpoints are represented. “(It is) doing a disservice to the students they are responsible for.”

Sun has served as counsel to the ACLU for five years and also works on the agency’s LGBT Project, which promotes LGBT rights. Sun was involved in litigating the case at Ponce de Leon.

Sun said it is not uncommon for administrators to silence pro-LGBT speech on the grounds that it is — or can become — a distraction to students. Davis made a similar argument, although the judge ruled that his suspension of students for wearing clothing that supported gay rights was more distracting than the students’ symbolic speech itself. 

Davis has since been replaced and now teaches American government and economics at the high school.

Some schools are not owning up to their responsibilities to truly be a place of education, according to Sun.

“When school districts decide to censor speech about LGBT issues, it sends the wrong message about LGBT students,” Sun said.

 “It also shuts down debate about some of the most pressing political issue of our times.”

Sun was also involved in the litigation of a recent case out of Tennessee in which students became concerned when schools blocked Web sites with educational, pro-LGBT content. 

Some of the blocked sites included the Human Rights Campaign, GLSEN and the Gay-Straight Alliance Network.Sun said one of the major issues in the case was that the Web filters did not prevent students from accessing anti-gay sites, including sites that supported reparative therapy, which seeks to convert gay individuals to become heterosexuals.

A federal judge dismissed the case in August after the Knox County School District in Knoxville decided to alter its Web filtering system to allow for Web sites like that of the Human Rights Campaign to be accessed by students using school computers.

“It certainly crosses the line when schools decide to censor one viewpoint and not others,” Sun said. 

“Administrators can’t pick and choose what type of speech they are going to allow on campus based on their views on that topic.”

As part of the settlement, the school district agreed to inform the ACLU anytime the Web filtering software changes access to educational LGBT sites.

Herzfeld, who worked on the case, said the most “disturbing” factor was that someone had deliberately allowed viewpoint discrimination.

“It is ridiculously harmful and amazingly shortsighted,” Herzfeld said.