Thursday, May 03, 2007

Settlement reached in Woodlan case

Embattled Indiana journalism adviser Amy Sorrell, whose ordeal we've been tracking here, has reached a settlement with with East Allen Community Schools in what has to be considered a blow for student free expression rights. Under the settlement, Sorrell keeps her job but will be transferred to another school and barred from advising publications in the district for three years.

Predicatbly, very few seem to agree with the district's decision, although the district maintains it has been unfairly maligned. Said the Indianapolis Star in a staff editorial (stop us if you've heard this before ...):

"While student press freedom is not and cannot be absolute, court precedent holds that educators may not arbitrarily suppress school journalism and must show academic reason for intervening. Avoidance of trouble does not strike us as an academic criterion, much less a guide for budding opinion writers."

So, what can be learned from this situation for advisers who hope this never happens to them?

David L. Adams, a professor of journalism at Indiana University, said one of Sorrell's biggest mistakes might have been taking the lead in fighting against administration:

In hindsight, one of the other mistakes Sorrell might have made: leading the charge for threats to her students’ expression. It’s a difficult task for 14- to 18-year-olds to do this, and many teachers make a similar mistake because they know that freedom of expression is often challenged by those in authority. Young Americans can be terrified easily by adult threats when they try to express their thoughts on issues of controversy.

Advisers, it's always best to let your students do the leading in situations such as this. You can point your kids in the direction of sound information and advice, such as WJEA and the Student Press Law Center. But the moment you take the lead, you run the risk of putting your job in jeopardy. Sorrell's job might have been in jeopardy anyway, but it certainly wasn't helped by the fact that she used her district e-mail to solicit help for herself and her students. Protect yourself!

This doesn't in any way excuse the district's actions, which were reprehensible toward student free expression, and it's unfortunate that Sorrell's forced apology gave Superindendent M. Kay Novotny the opening she needed to issue this smug statement (which included the assertion that Sorrell was allowed to keep her job out of "compassion").

But it's important for both students and advisers alike to remember that student journalism is always at its strongest when the students are the ones making the decisions -- even whether to fight censorship.

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