Sunday, March 25, 2007

More Local Matters: "Censorship" in East Allen

Amendment I. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Concerning the notorious East Allen County Schools "censorship" business, I'll start with a full-disclosure exercise. I served a term on that school board, 1996 - 2000, having won my one and only political race -- against two opponents, in fact. Of course, an electoral contest is different from a bar fight, in that it's easier to defeat two opponents than one, and probably easier still to defeat three; that is, as long as your opponents are mostly alike, and you're the different one. That way, they tend to split the opposition vote.

Anyway, I decided to retire undefeated in 2000, having changed my mind about several things, and having become convinced that government education is perhaps a contradiction in terms, or maybe just a bad idea in many, many ways. The current controversy seems to me to be an apt illustration of the "bad idea" thing:
Student news adviser put on paid leave
Her job at EACS on bubble
By Krista J. Stockman
The Journal Gazette

The East Allen County Schools teacher at the center of a controversy over the newspaper at Woodlan Junior-Senior High School has been placed on paid leave.

English and journalism teacher Amy Sorrell was told Monday that she was being placed on leave while the district investigates allegations that could lead to terminating her contract.

She said she doesn’t know what the investigation is about or why she is being placed on leave.

“I’m assuming it’s with this whole mess of all this other stuff, but I really don’t see how it got this far,” Sorrell said.

The problems began when sophomore Megan Chase wrote an opinion piece for the Jan. 19 issue of the Woodlan Tomahawk questioning people who believe homosexuality is wrong.

Although Sorrell, who has been at Woodlan four years, generally ran sensitive stories by Woodlan Principal Ed Yoder first, she did not show him Chase’s piece because she didn’t think it would be controversial.

After the paper came out, Yoder told the newspaper staff and Sorrell that in the future he would need to sign off on every issue.

Yoder also gave Sorrell a written warning for insubordination and not carrying out her responsibilities as a teacher for exposing Woodlan students to inappropriate material. He told her if she did not comply with his orders she could be fired.
During my time on the board, I read a number of issues of the Woodlan paper, as well as the ones produced in other EACS schools. Generally, I did not find this a happy experience ... not because of the sentiments and opinions expressed, which were more or less what one might expect from people of tender years and limited life experience, but because so many of the students were heavily, heavily challenged by the elements of correct English spelling and grammar. (I also found, over the years of my term, that their teachers and administrators were also surprisingly challenged in those areas: a condition to which I gradually became numb.)

I reproduced the first amendment to the U.S. constitution at the top of this post to dispose of the notion that a student's "first amendment rights" are somehow trampled if she is limited in what she can write in the school newspaper. The text of the amendment forbids the U.S. Congress from making laws abridging the freedom of the press, among other things; and since the Congress has not done so in this case, it's clear to me that the first amendment stands inviolate here.

When government organizes a public school system, everyone gets to pay for it; "everyone" in the district, but also "everyone" in the state, since a large fraction of the school system's budget actually comes from the state. (I should say "through the hands of the state;" the state, after all, has no money to distribute except for what it extorts from its subjects, meaning you and me.) Anyway, if a school in the district publishes a student newspaper, every taxpayer is privileged to pay for the paper and ink and processing, whether they routinely enjoy the privilege of reading the thing or not. These taxpayers are the publishers. Through their elected representatives, they (in principle) employ a number of administrators, bureaucrats, and teachers who (in principle) carry out their will and look after their interests as publishers. And that's where the "bad idea" thing comes in. What are these interests? Do thousands of people really share substantially common interests, opinions, and principles, simply because they all live in the eastern half of Allen County? Not likely. But they all get to share a great big school system anyway, operated according to the results of endless political fighting, with the political winners getting some (distant) approximation to what they wanted, and the political losers getting ... well, screwed, more or less. While the government's at it, why don't they just build great big group homes, and assign us to "families," a couple hundred at a time, and let us all learn to live together, deciding what's for breakfast and who washes the dishes, all according to the same sort of political methods? It's democracy, right? What's the problem?

I'm not discussing here whether Ms. Sorrell is being treated fairly or not, simply because I'm sure I don't have all the relevant data. I know that she is represented by a ferocious labor union, and that if she is treated improperly, according to her duly collectively-bargained contract, legal relief is available to her. Based on my experience in having dealt with one or two such matters during my watch, I'm fairly sure there's a lot of story here that's not been told in public, and probably will never be told, due to the well-founded "fear of the lawyers." Nor do I have any particular opinion about whether the student editorial that was originally at issue was really objectionable, or not. I'm sure that some of my fellow EACS taxpayers found it vile, and others found it praiseworthy; it is ever thus. I just think it's a shame that so diverse a group of citizens should be forced to publish, as a mutually-antagonistic collective, material that nearly always enrages someone.

It's so unnecessary.


Craig said...

Hey, at least you have something to say about it. This story has been pretty non-existent in the "thriving" Ft. Wayne blogosphere.

B.G. (Semper Paratus) said...

Can't include me in those talleys, gentlemen..I posted back on 23 February about it.