Photograph by Steven Higgs

IU Journalism professor Jack Dvorak recently sent a letter to school officials at Woodlan High School protesting disciplinary actions against the school’s journalism teacher. The principal and school board are considering firing the teacher after she allowed an opinion piece to be published in the school newspaper that promoted tolerance of gays. Dvorak says the administrators’ actions are troubling on both legal and educational grounds.

The anticipated firing of a Fort Wayne-area high school journalism teacher has received national attention for First Amendment issues, and members of the Bloomington community are speaking up.

In a letter to Woodlan Junior-Senior administration officials IU journalism professor Jack Dvorak questioned the decision to censor the school newspaper and put its advisor on leave after the newspaper printed an editorial concerning homophobia.

In his letter, Dvorak, also director of the High School Journalism Institute, cited educational and legal ramifications as the two main areas of concern in the case.

“People must wonder how a school system can teach about the Constitution and Bill of Rights and then turn around and deny those fundamental rights of both teachers and students.” Dvorak wrote to High School Principal Edwin Yoder and East Allen County Schools superintendent M. Kay Novotny. “Why would the school want to contradict itself with these types of mixed messages? What types of civics lessons are being taught when this happens?”

In late January, the Woodlan Junior-Senior High School newspaper, the Woodlan Tomahawk, printed an opinion article written by 15-year-old sophomore Megan Chase that asked her peers to consider more tolerant attitudes toward gay and lesbian people.

“Would it be so hard to just accept them as human beings who have feelings just like everyone else?” her article reads. “Being homosexual doesn’t make a person inhuman, it makes them just a little bit different from the rest of the world.”

She referred to the troublingly high suicide rate of gay and lesbian teenagers and wrote, “It is so wrong to look down on those people … just because they have a different sexuality from you.”

After publication of the article on Jan. 19, Yoder ordered that all future articles receive his approval before publication. He reasoned that the article’s subject matter was inappropriate for the students at Woodlan, who could be as young as 11. Allen County schools have a policy that allows principals to review student publications before they are printed,. However, it is up to principals to decide if and how much they want to enforce the policy.

Woodlan journalism teacher and newspaper advisor Amy Sorrell had obtained approval and praise from Yoder for past articles on the topic of teen pregnancy and parenting and sexually transmitted diseases. She did not believe that an editorial on tolerance and diversity would be controversial.

Indeed, no parents, students or community members have complained about the article. But after Sorrell and the Tomahawk staff rejected Yoder’s orders, Sorrell was placed on paid leave, beginning March 19.

She has been told that the school board, during its May 1 board meeting, will considering firing her for insubordination, modifying the newspaper class curriculum to include analysis of First Amendment cases, neglecting the yearbook program and portraying East Allen County Schools and Yoder as intolerant.

During an interview in his office, Dvorak pointed out that gay marriage is a high-profile political issue.

“Why shouldn’t students be studying the same things in school," he said. "And therefore why wouldn’t the school newspaper have every right to publish something like that as part of the overall debate regarding gay marriage or attitudes towards gay people?”

Carol Fischer, an IU employee and producer of BloomingOUT on WFHB, believes that people are so eager to protect youth that “we conceal truth and perpetuate myths in zealousness,” especially regarding gay and lesbian people.

She feels that when it comes to diversity issues, censorship should not be necessary in a high school setting beyond checks for basic issues of obscenity.

The law appears to concur, with the 1988 Supreme Court ruling known as Hazelwood that allows administrators to review high school newspapers before publication but not to censor material unless there is legitimate educational justification for the censorship.

“They’re censoring those kids way beyond what is allowed by law,” said Dvorak. “And that’s just horrid.”

The case has been cause for concern for both journalism and civil rights groups, with the American Civil Liberties Union, the Indiana High School Press Association and the Society of Professional Journalists all pledging their support to Sorrell and her students.

Articles concerning the case have recently been published in the national gay and lesbian newspaper the Advocate and many Indiana newspapers.

In his letter, Dvorak suggests that no one will come out on top from this controversy unless it is resolved quickly and Sorrell is put back in her position at the school.

“Her suspension seems unwarranted, “ he said, “and I would hope that right-minded people would correct the wrongs that have been done to her and, as a result, to her students.”

Josephine McRobbie can be reached at