HSJ Headline News
Woodlan case in murky waters: Mix of homosexuality, religion is troublesome for older journalists too
Fort Wayne, In.d
March 1, 2007
If student journalists are looking to professionals for guidance, commentary in Fort Wayne’s two daily newspapers about the recent controversy at Woodlan Junior-Senior High School can only lead them in the wrong direction.
Principal Ed Yoder’s demand to review each issue of the school newspaper prior to publication was not, as a Journal Gazette editorial claimed, contrary to accepted journalistic standards.
Nor were the administrators’ call for journalistic balance after publication of “an inoffensive expression of good will” unreasonable or mean-spirited, as this newspaper implied.
Even experienced professional journalists, it seems, don’t quite know what to do with the always-volatile combination of homosexuality and religion.
The column that started the controversy was, despite its immaturity, more persuasive. Writing in the Jan. 19 issue of the Woodlan Tomahawk, sophomore Megan Chase offered a heartfelt plea for tolerance. A friend recently had told Chase he was gay, and she urged students not to “look down on those people or make fun of them just because they have a different sexuality than you.”
Good advice, and Chase should have quit while she was ahead. Instead, she waded into a minefield.
“There is also the religious aspect to the argument,” she wrote. “(But) I wouldn’t want to believe in something that would condemn me over something that I didn’t even choose.”
“We were concerned about (Chase’s) reference to religion, and felt it either should have been expanded upon or deleted. Was she representing all religions?” explained East Allen County Schools Assistant Superintendent Andrew Melin. “This was characterized as ‘censorship’ or ‘intolerant,’ but it wasn’t that at all. We need to demonstrate a respect for all people.”
Precisely. The people supposedly in charge shouldn’t have to read the newspaper to learn a student has used a tax-supported publication to question or criticize people’s faith – especially in the generally conservative East Allen district.
And, intentionally or not, that’s exactly what Chase did. Have we reached the point where traditionalists – especially religious people – are expected to abstain from the debate over legitimate, controversial public issues?
Here’s what The News-Sentinel editorial page had to say: “Balance? What could Yoder and Melin be thinking? Were (journalism adviser Amy) Sorrell and Chase supposed to find a student to argue in favor of mocking or ostracizing gay kids to offer some ‘balance’ to a call for tolerance?”
Well, of course not. There’s a huge and obvious range of legitimate, “tolerant” opinion – religious and otherwise – between Chase’s call for acceptance and the kind of cruelty she and others rightly condemn. Had I been Woodlan’s journalism adviser, I would have printed Chase’s column, too – after consulting with Yoder. But by printing Chase’s column, the Tomahawk has obligated itself to print an opposing viewpoint if given the opportunity. Some of Chase’s “free-speech” supporters won’t be so pleased about that – and imagine the howls of “separation of church and state” should someone use the Bible or Koran to refute her position!
I’ve been writing opinion pieces for the last 15 years or so, and every one of them has been read before publication by an editor – often by several editors. Some of the columns have been changed significantly, and two or three weren’t printed at all. I’ve argued with editors, questioning their judgment and occasionally even their motives. But I never questioned their authority to change or scrap my work.
The same applies to school newspapers, only more so. The principal is, in effect, the publisher – and has the legal authority and obligation to review content when deemed appropriate. If East Allen is scorned or sued because of a student journalist’s work, administrators and taxpayers – not the student – will have to answer for it.
According to Melin, Sorrell was supposed to notify Yoder in advance of any story that might be controversial, just as she had before publication of a story on teen pregnancy. But as Sorrell told The News-Sentinel’s Ese Isiorho, “(I) didn’t think the homosexuality thing would be a problem.”
Proving once again that sensitivity, like tolerance, travels best on a two-way street.
Copyright 2007, The News-Sentinel. Reprinted with permission