"I have a friend who recently told me he was gay, and I kind of wrote it for him. I thought that students would talk about it, but we've had gay students at school, and it's never caused any disruptions before."
— Megan Chase, a 15-year-old sophomore whose opinion piece in her school newspaper about accepting homosexuality has sparked a regional debate about freedom of speech in high schools.
"It's not the topic of the article. It's the content of the article in terms of its level of its appropriateness and its balance. You have seventh- and eighth-graders who are far less mature than 11th- and 12th-graders."
— Andy Melin, East Allen County (Indiana) Schools assistant superintendent, voicing objection to Chase's commentary.
Megan Chase, a sophomore at Woodlan Junior-Senior High School in East Allen County, Indiana, believes that society should be more tolerant of homosexuals. So, on Jan. 19, 2007, under the supervision of Woodlan's journalism advisor of four years, Amy Sorrell, she shared her thoughts on the matter with the entire Woodlan student body, specifically students in grades 7–12.
"I can only imagine how hard it would be to come out as homosexual in today's society," she wrote in her very first editorial for the school's newspaper, The Tomahawk. "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."
Chase also addressed why she believes homosexuality is not a choice ("It's not a disease, or something that you catch from someone else; it's something that they don't have control over"); her views on "the religious aspect to the argument" ("I wouldn't want to believe in something that would condemn me over something that I didn't even choose"); and statistics on the dropout and suicide rates of gay teens and young adults ("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").
And finally, in closing, she wrote this: "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."
Chase's sincere and delicate plea for acceptance of gay people is no more offensive or subversive than an essay on the golden rule, but little did she know her commentary would give her an opportunity to learn firsthand about the intricacies and side effects of free speech — and that writing about homosexuals can be as contentious as being a homosexual. And she'd learn these lessons from her principal, Edwin Yoder.
After reading the commentary, Yoder sent a letter to Chase, Sorrell and the entire newspaper staff, ordering that they submit all future issues of the newspaper to him for review prior to publication.
If you're thinking that Yoder's command came after a barrage of complaints by concerned parents, think again. Local papers reported that as of Feb. 20, a full month after publication of Chase's views, no one voiced an objection — except Yoder.
Curious? Sure, but don't cry foul … yet.
Yoder's instruction is not beyond the scope of his position; the school board's policy allows him to review articles. In addition, thanks to a 1988 Supreme Court ruling (Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier), Yoder isn't the only educator in the country allowed to audit speech in school: "Educators do not offend the First Amendment by exercising editorial control over the style and content of student speech in school-sponsored expressive activities so long as their actions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns."
That said, Yoder's request is rare. A principal usually trusts his journalism advisor to make judgment calls with respect to content in the school newspaper, much in the same way he trusts his science advisor not to allow students to build dirty bombs at the science fair.
Yoder's job sure would be easier if the journalism students at Woodlan would just write about their favorite colors rather than homosexuality, but as Yoder is discovering, the business of free speech isn't always pleasant, and it's rarely cut and dry.
It's clear that Yoder has the power to review articles, and also that Sorrell is aware of that. The Fort Wayne News Sentinel reported that Sorrell said, "I do realize that prior review is allowable under the school-board policy, but I don't think this subject warranted prior review."
And the Associated Press reported, "Sorrell said she brought Yoder a piece on teen pregnancy that appeared in the same issue and did not think Chase's editorial would be a problem." But does the power to review also give Yoder cause to censor?
That's exactly what Sorrell and her staff wanted to know.