Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Student Free Speech and Gay Rights

A school principal in Indiana is throwing a fit and demanding prior review of all issues of the school newspaper after a sophomore at the school wrote an opinion piece arguing that gays are just like the rest of us and shouldn’t be treated any differently.

Principal Edwin Yoder wrote a letter to the newspaper staff and journalism teacher Amy Sorrell insisting he sign off on every issue. Sorrell and the students contacted the Student Press Law Center, an advocacy group for student newspapers, which advised them to appeal the decision.

Last week, Yoder issued Sorrell a written warning for insubordination and not carrying out her responsibilities as a teacher. He accused her of exposing Woodlan students, who are in grades seven through 12, to inappropriate material and said if she did not comply with his orders she could be fired.

The school is citing Hazelwood, but the application here is dubious:

Melin cited the 1988 Supreme Court case, Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, which ruled St. Louis school officials had the authority to censor stories about teen pregnancy and divorce in its high school newspaper.

Adam Goldstein, attorney at the Student Press Law Center, said the Woodlan situation does not fall under the Supreme Court precedent, which permits a school to interfere with student expression only when it can provide a legitimate educational basis for doing so.

In the Hazelwood case, school officials were able to prove the articles went against what was being taught in the classroom.

“If students are not being taught tolerance in the classroom, their problem is much larger than this particular incident,” Goldstein said.

Yoder is practicing an illegal form of censorship, Goldstein said, and the Student Press Law Center has available attorneys who are willing to donate their time if the Woodlan students take the case to court.

Here is the full text of the student’s editorial:

We live in a world where we grow up being taught that it is only acceptable for a boy and a girl to be together. So how do you think you would feel if as you grew older and more mature you started noticing people of the same sex as you, rather than the opposite?

I can only imagine how hard it would be to come out as homosexual in today’s society. I think it is so wrong to look down on those people, or to make fun of them, just because they have a different sexuality than you. There is nothing wrong with them or their brain; they’re just different than you. I’ve heard some people say that they think there is a cure to being homosexual. I can’t believe anyone would think that. It’s not a disease, or something that you catch from someone else; it’s something that they don’t have control over. In saying that, I also believe that homosexuality is not a choice. Almost everyone that I talk to says that a person chooses to be gay or straight. That, again, is something that I believe to be very wrong. If people made the choice to be homosexual, there wouldn’t be anyone who committed suicide because they were too afraid of what people would think of them, and kids wouldn’t be afraid of being disowned if they came out to their parents.

There is also the religious aspect to the argument, where people say that if someone is homosexual, they are automatically sent to hell. To me, that seems extremely unfair. So what are homosexual Christians supposed to do? The answer that I constantly get to that question is, “Just don’t acknowledge that they’re homosexual and live a ‘normal’ life.” Excuse me? So they’re just supposed to never find a partner, or marry someone of the opposite sex, have kids, and pretend they’re “normal?” I don’t think that’s right, or fair. I wouldn’t want to believe in something that would condemn me over something that I didn’t even choose.

It is fact that as many as 7.2 million Americans under the age of 20 are homosexual, and of those that have already come out, 28% of them felt compelled to drop out of school due to the constant verbal assault that they experienced after people found out. Now, if you think that is terrible, this is even worse: According to pflagupstatesc.org, every day 13 Americans from the ages of 15-24 commit suicide, and homosexual youths make up 30% of the completed suicides. I don’t understand why we would put so much pressure on those people, that they would feel that they have to end their lives because of their sexuality. Would it be so hard to just accept them as human beings who have feelings just like everyone else? Being homosexual doesn’t make a person inhuman, it makes them just a little bit different than the rest of the world. And for living in a society that tells you to always be yourself, it’s a hard price to pay.

The administration should be praising this student, not trying to censor her.


  1. #1 Gretchen
    February 26, 2007

    A little more than ten years ago I wrote a feature story for my high school newspaper on young gay peoples’ experiences coming out to their friends and family. The most that happened to me was a few people decided to decorate my shelf in the journalism room with signs saying “DYKE”….I assume the principal wasn’t one of them.

    This principal needs to raise his maturity to the level of his students.

  2. #2 Trinifar
    February 26, 2007

    Good catch, Ed. This issue is different (and IMO more important than) some of the other school-related free speech issues you have written about. What is published in a school paper and how it is vetted is, to me, quite different from what is printed on a student’s tee shirt or the sort of jewelry (crosses etc.) a student wears. The school paper can be picked up and read — or not. The act of publishing a school paper is a big lesson in American history and free speech rights of the first order.

    In this case I vote for firing the principal.

  3. #3 cephyn
    February 26, 2007

    That’s a pretty well thought out, respectable article for a high school paper. I don’t think anything in my HS paper was ever so relevant or poignant.

    You’re absolutely right – the school should be giving this kid a medal and submitting the article on her behalf to news organizations as a model student’s work.


  4. #4 Dan
    February 26, 2007

    Be a fun case to take up, but I’m not sure the outcome would be as might be hoped for. We may get a bit of insight as to where the Roberts Court is headed with student speech this term in Morse (“Bong Hits for Jesus”); my suspicion is that the Court will be looking to expand Hazelwood, not limit it. Stay tuned.

  5. #5 Karoli
    February 26, 2007

    Boy, this ramps up the whole principle of teacher liability for exposing children to inappropriate material, doesn’t it?

    This student’s essay was outstanding — it should be applauded, not condemned.

  6. #6 JS
    February 26, 2007

    Somebody should print out a lot of copies of that editorial (and all other material censored by the principal) and ‘accidentially’ ‘forget’ it around school(s)…

    – JS

  7. #7 ThomasTallis
    February 26, 2007

    If recollection serves, Hazelwood does not apply if the state has a law governing student free speech. Does Indiana have such a law? I don’t know.

  8. #8 Ted H.
    February 26, 2007

    Quoting the linked article:

    “… [Assistant Superintendent Andy] Melin, who said he hasn’t read the editorial, said school officials do not have an issue with the topic but with the lack of balance and thoroughness in the opinion piece.”

    Where to start? How about with the idea that opinion pieces are not supposed to have balance? Op/eds in major newspapers give one side. That’s what it is there for. Balance goes in the main sections, opinions in the (go figure) opinion section.

    What kind of balance could there possibly be? The only point I would make is that not all homophobia is based on religion. Certainly some is, but not exclusively.

    Thouroughness: Again, it’s an opinion piece. It would have been nice to see a source quoted for the numbers, but that’s about it. About the only thing to look out for is what I learned in Journalism as Gross Factual Errors. Unless the numbers cited are wrong, there can’t be factual errors in an opinion.

    Throw in the fact that it was the Assistant Superintendent who said that (after admitting he had not read the editorial), and there is a big disconnect here at the higher levels, not just the principal.

  9. #9 Jeff N.
    February 26, 2007

    Situations such as this — which are all too common — are precisely why we in Washington are working to get a law passed that will limit the ability of administrators to censor students.

    It’s House Bill 1307, and it is scheduled for debate on our House floor in the next week or two after making it through its first two committees. It would prevent administrators from censoring student publications except in instances of unprotected speech such as libel, invasion of privacy, obscenity, or speech that threatens to disrupt the orderly operation of the school. (Many of you will recognize that as essentially the Tinker standard.) Six other states, including California, already have passed similar laws.

    Ironically, the bill also prevents advisers from being punished for refusing to censor student work.

    It’s an outright shame that this principal would try to subdue this kind of thoughtful piece, and even worse that the district administration is not using this opportunity to right a wrong. They’d rather stand by their buffoon of a principal rather than make the correct decision. This is precisely the kind of dialogue and discourse we should be encouraging in our students, and every parent in that district ought to be ashamed of the actions of the people assigned to care for their children.

    You can find more information about HB 1307 by clicking here.

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