Tenn. adviser removed after yearbook publishes profile of gay student

TENNESSEE — A journalism adviser who wasat the center of a controversy surrounding a yearbook article about an openlygay student has been reassigned.

LenoirCity High School English teacher James Yoakley was informed last week that hehas been removed from the yearbook and newspaper and transferred to Lenoir CityMiddle School.

Theschool district’s decision comes about a month after the LCHS yearbookpublished a profile of then-senior Zac Mitchell. In the piece, titled “It’s OKto be gay,” Mitchell discusses his decision to come out as gay during eighthgrade.

Thestory — which was packaged with a photo — also features direct quotes fromMitchell about an experience he had cross-dressing with a friend.

Yoakley,who served as chair of the school’s English department and has been advisingfor six years, believes the district’s move was in direct retaliation to thecontent.

“I’mnot happy with the reassignment, but will make the most of it and use it as anopportunity to grow as a teacher,” he said in an email. “I think that because Ihad done nothing that warranted my dismissal and that since I refused toacquiesce to the principal’s suggestion that I resign, the system decided thatthe only way they could show that they had taken action was to move me toanother school.”

Thestory prompted strong reactions from community members against its publication,with some circulating a letter demanding a response and encouraging others to“take a stand for our faith.”

Aseparate group — called “Take A Stand Against The Ignorance In Lenoir City” onFacebook — has encouraged more tolerance and openness by the district.

LCHSalso made headlines in February when its administration refused to allow aneditorial about atheism and the separation of church and state to appear in thePanther Press, the school’s studentnewspaper.

Yoakleybelieves last week’s reassignment was a move “designed to appease a small, butvocal, group of voters.”

SuperintendentWayne Miller, who made the decision, denied this, saying instead that the yearbooknever obtained Mitchell’s permission to run the piece.

“WhetherI think the content is appropriate or not is less the issue here than the factthat if we know we are going to publish controversial things and don’t botherto get the student’s permission, that’s a problem,” Miller said.

Headded that “the courts have already been clear that these [student]publications are not open public forums … and it was reasonable to think thisstory was going to create some issues.”

Yoakley,though, said Mitchell knew clearly that he was being interviewed for theyearbook, and had even openly expressed pride over the story soon after itspublication.

Despitepressure from community members, Yoakley said the decision to allow the articlewas clear cut.

“Iview the school yearbook and newspaper as student media. They make theeditorial decisions, they decide the content and layout,” he said. “I have beenthe adviser for six years and have developed a philosophy that I think falls inline with student productions across the country.”

ThoughYoakley does not plan to pursue any legal action against the district, SPLCAttorney Advocate Adam Goldstein believes both Yoakley and his students couldhave a strong case, even though nobody was fired.

“Ifthe change in duties is perceived as retaliatory, it can still be the basis fora lawsuit,” Goldstein said.

Headded that the minimal legal standard for determining whether a source hasgiven permission to be interviewed by a reporter is whether a person of “ordinaryintelligence” would recognize that what is happening is, in fact, an interview.

“Ifthe school thinks that a graduating senior can’t tell when he’s beinginterviewed, then the yearbook is the least of their problems with theireducational offerings,” he said.

Accordingto Miller, this is not the first time that Yoakley has allowed “inappropriatecontent” to make its way into either the yearbook or newspaper. He believesYoakley has not always exercised appropriate oversight over the publications, andhopes that his reassignment will allow him to be “more successful.”

Yoakleysaid sentiments like these have made him “stressed, anxious and worried” overthe past few months.

“Everytime my phone rang, an announcement was made or I received an email, I got sickto my stomach,” he said. “I never imagined this would create the controversy itdid.”

By Seth Zweifler, SPLC staff writer