Two months ago, a sophomore student journalist at Woodlan Junior-Senior High School just outside Ft. Wayne advanced a disturbing message in an opinion piece in The Tomahawk, the student newspaper.
She said it was a good idea to be nice to people, regardless of their sexual orientation.
Stunned, the East Allen County Schools administrators reacted.
Shortly after the piece appeared, they sent the newspaper’s adviser, Amy Sorrell, a warning letter. When the students on the newspaper staff wanted to meet with the principal, the superintendent and the school board, the school system’s leaders refused to talk with the students.
Then the school system adopted a new student newspaper policy that gave the principal the right to censor anything with which he might disagree and denied students, teachers and parents the right to contact a lawyer if they disagreed with him.
That wasn’t enough, though.
The school system demanded that the principal review the next issue of The Tomahawk and that the newspaper print the new policy. When the principal sent the newspaper back, he had gutted so much of it that the students voted not to publish what was left.
Then, on March 19, the school system suspended the newspaper adviser by putting her on paid leave and started the process of firing her. When the principal visited the newspaper classroom to tell the students that the newspaper was to reflect his thoughts exactly, at least three students quit in protest.
The next night at a school board meeting, the board refused to let students, parents and teachers even talk about the situation. When a parent asked under what part of Indiana law the board could refuse to let citizens talk about a public policy at an open public meeting, the board president said the question was out of order.
It’s a good thing no student at Woodlan has had the audacity to tell anyone to “have a nice day.” The school’s administrators probably would have resorted to mass expulsions.
Two months into this disturbing episode, at least two things have become clear.
The first is that this is not just a dispute about student journalists’ rights. When the school board refused to let parents — who are, after all, citizens and taxpayers — discuss a school policy at an open meeting, the school system’s leaders made it clear that they like no part of the First Amendment. They have just as much disdain for the constitutional guarantees of the rights to speak freely and to petition government as they do for freedom of the press.
The second is that these folks haven’t thought things through. They have focused on the privileges of being a student newspaper’s publisher and not the responsibilities. By asserting that he is the publisher, Woodlan’s principal, Ed Yoder, now has made himself personally responsible for what appears in the newspaper. This means that, should the paper libel someone on his watch, that person could lay claim to Yoder’s house, his retirement funds and any of his other assets. Similarly, now that he has publicly disavowed the “be nice to people even if they are gay” column, he and the school could bear some liability if a gay student is harassed at Woodlan.
Real newspaper publishers understand those things, which is why they tend to think before they act.
Censorship is the lazy person’s response to dealing with thorny issues. Like most lazy responses to challenges, it doesn’t work. The school system’s leaders have not suppressed the message; they simply have divided their school system and wasted precious time and resources.
If the leaders of the East Allen County Schools ever want to integrate lessons into their schools about the ways journalists balance rights and responsibilities, the Indiana Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists would love to help.
Student journalists need to learn about that balancing act. And so do the administrators in East Allen County Schools.
John Krull is the president of the Indiana Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and the director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism.