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Free-speech groups rally round journalism teacher facing dismissal

By The Associated Press
04.02.07

WOODBURN, Ind. — National and state free-speech groups are rallying to support a northeastern Indiana high school journalism teacher who faces firing for a dispute that began when a student newspaper published an editorial advocating tolerance of gays.

Amy Sorrell, who has been a teacher at Woodlan Junior-Senior High School for four years, was notified on March 29 that the school board would vote May 1 on terminating her contract.

Administrators outlined seven reasons for firing her, including not following directives from Principal Ed Yoder regarding the newspaper's editorial policy. She was also accused of engaging in a campaign that portrayed East Allen County Schools and Yoder as intolerant.

Those accusations arose from an opinion piece published Jan. 19 in the school's newspaper, the Woodlan Tomahawk, that questioned intolerance toward homosexuals. Shortly after the newspaper was distributed, district officials said the column's content was inappropriate for an audience that includes children as young as 11 and that it should have been cleared first by Yoder.

Yoder said he would need to approve all future articles, a process known as prior review and generally disliked by journalism-advocacy groups.

Jack Groch, the Indiana State Teachers Association representative for East Allen, says Sorrell intends to formally ask for a public hearing before the school board as well as more detailed information regarding the charges.

Meanwhile, supporters from across the nation are lining up to fight for Sorrell, who teaches other classes including AP English, and the students' First Amendment rights.

The Student Press Law Center, an advocacy group for student newspapers based in Arlington, Va., is working to find a local attorney to help Sorrell in her fight, said Adam Goldstein, an attorney for the law center.

He said there were several problems with the school district's accusations.

"I'm concerned with the idea that Amy implied school officials were intolerant," he said. "I think it was censoring the article on tolerance that implied they were intolerant."

At this point, Goldstein said Sorrell would like to return to her job with the students' First Amendment rights intact.

"It's not as if there was a controversy about this newspaper that led to these actions by the district," he said. "There was silence from the community and then a controversy created by the district's actions."

In recent weeks, Sorrell and her students have also received support from the Indiana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Indiana High School Press Association and journalism professors and experts at Indiana and Ball State universities.

The Society of Professional Journalists also plans to continue supporting Sorrell and her students, said John Krull, president of the Indiana Professional Chapter. He said the district overreacted to the column, and continues to overreact.

"It's bad enough they took out a shotgun to kill a gnat, but the fact they keep reloading and blowing holes in the wall doesn't inspire confidence," Krull said.


Update
Ind. student's column draws more support from press advocates
Suspension of high school newspaper adviser over opinion backing tolerance for gays is 'real threat to quality student journalism.' 04.23.07

Previous
Ind. teacher suspended amid turmoil over school newspaper
Officials place Woodlan Junior-Senior High School journalism instructor on paid leave two months after Tomahawk ran editorial advocating tolerance for homosexuals. 03.20.07

Related

Student newspaper adviser settles suit with Indiana district

Chad Tuley was removed as adviser after paper printed story about student being charged with murder. 10.14.05

Calif. student newspaper finally prints controversial articles
School officials relent, allow Bakersfield students to publish stories written last school year that were based on interviews with homosexual students. 11.08.05

College settles lawsuit with ex-journalism instructor
Adviser alleged Kansas community college fired her over aggressive reporting by the campus newspaper. 08.10.06

N.J. college reinstates student newspaper adviser
Ocean County College trustees' decision comes more than a month after federal judge issues preliminary injunction allowing Karen Bosley to return as adviser this fall. 09.07.06

School: ‘Tolerance’ editorial will not be tolerated
By Gene Policinski Giving Indiana principal prior-review power teaches students that the State's heavy hand can come down even on a plea that gays not be denigrated. 04.08.07

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