Tennessee school board vows “investigation” of yearbook over gay student’s profile story

Responding to fierce public criticism, the Lenoir City, Tenn., school board is investigating the decision to publish an article in the 2012 Lenoir City High School yearbook in which a student describes his decision to come out publicly as gay.

Today’s Knoxville News-Sentinel reports that, during a discussion of the yearbook article at Wednesday’s board meeting, Chairwoman Rosemary Quillen promised “a permanent solution so that situations like this never happen again.”

Nothing was said publicly about the status of English department chairman and yearbook adviser James Yoakley, an 11-year veteran of LCHS who has been the target of public hostility. In an interview with the News-Sentinel, Yoakley described the article as part of the students’ efforts to portray all aspects of the school community, adding, “There’s no higher form of learning than creating, and you have to have independence to create.”

The story, “It’s O.K. To Be Gay,” is one of several personality profiles appearing in the annual, the theme of which is, “In My Element.”

On Monday, the Student Press Law Center sent a letter of concern to Superintendent Wayne Miller and Principal Steve Millsaps explaining that the yearbook article was legally protected speech that could not be censored simply because some audience members might disagree with the writer’s viewpoint:

The yearbook adviser, Mr. Yoakley, would have been breaking the law – and exposing the district to an embarrassing First Amendment lawsuit – had he demanded that the article be censored. By not censoring the article, Mr. Yoakley responsibly performed his duties as a public servant, and he well served the taxpayers of your district, who otherwise would have been looking at years of costly litigation.

The letter pointed out that the Supreme Court explicitly rejected in its most recent student-speech case, Morse v. Frederick, a school district’s argument that it could censor speech merely on the grounds of “offensiveness.”

Lenoir City High School is the same school that, earlier this year, made headlines by barring an 18-year-old senior from publishing a newspaper column calling for greater acceptance of atheist students and decrying the interjection of religion into school activities, including Christian prayers at graduation ceremonies and football games.