The column in the student newspaper seemed innocent enough: advocating tolerance for people "different than you."
But since sophomore Megan Chase's words appeared Jan. 19 in The Tomahawk, the newspaper at Woodlan Junior-Senior High School, her newspaper adviser has been suspended and is fighting for her job, and charges of censorship and First Amendment violations are clouding this conservative northeastern Indiana community.
At issue is whether Chase's opinion column advocating tolerance of homosexuals was suitable for a student newspaper distributed to students in grades 7 through 12 and whether newspaper adviser Amy Sorrell followed protocol in allowing the column to be printed.
‘A real threat’
Media advocates say the debate has deeper ramifications.
"This is a real threat to quality student journalism if an adviser can be removed for not having censored a perfectly legitimate story that there was no legal reason why it shouldn't have been published," said Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Va.
School officials in this community of 1,600 residents, 10 miles east of Fort Wayne, say the issue isn't First Amendment rights but a teacher's failure to live up to her responsibilities. They contend Sorrell should have alerted Principal Ed Yoder to the article because of the sensitivity of the material.
"The way we view it is the broad topic of homosexuality is a sensitive enough issue in our society that the principal deserves to know that it's something the newspaper is going to write about," said Andy Melin, assistant superintendent of secondary education and technology.
Melin said Yoder would have allowed the article to be printed but likely would have suggested some changes.
District recommends firing
Sorrell has been placed on administrative leave and the school district has recommended she be fired. A public hearing is scheduled April 28, and the school board expects to vote May 1.
Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, argued that students have access to much more mature material in the school library and on the Internet.
"Advocating tolerance is controversial?" she said.
Chase's column, which she wrote after a friend told her he was gay, said society teaches that "it is only acceptable for a boy and a girl to be together," which makes declaring one's sexual orientation difficult.
"I can only imagine how hard it would be to come out as homosexual in today's society," she wrote. "I think 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. There is nothing wrong with them or their brain; they're just different than you."
She said she was surprised by school officials' reaction.
"I didn't think it was any big deal," Chase said of the column.
Sorrell, 30, said she showed the principal four stories about teen pregnancy, including an opinion piece advocating teaching safe sex practices over abstinence education, for the same Jan. 19 issue because she thought that "was going to cause the stir."
‘There isn’t anything controversial about tolerance’
But she acknowledges she never mentioned Chase's column. "There isn't anything controversial about tolerance," she said.
Stan Pflueger, president of the Fort Wayne chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbian and Gays and a graduate of the school district, said he was disappointed with the school system's reaction.
"The spirit of the article is just asking people to consider what your previous beliefs were about this particular subject," he said. "There's a difference between tolerance and agreement."
But resident Jim Bridge took a tougher stand.
"We all have rules that we have to abide by and it appears that she hasn't chosen to abide by the rules," Bridge said. "I own my own business and anybody that did that to me would be fired on the spot. She knew it had to be controversial."
Sorrell, the daughter of a newspaper editor, said she thought she knew what was acceptable in the school district where she has taught English for four years.
"I'd still make that same judgment," she said.