The Tennessee teacher in charge of advising the students who create the Lenoir City High School annual yearbook has been transferred after a half-page interview positively depicting a gay student appeared in the school’s yearbook. Long-time journalism teacher and English Department Chair James Yoakley has been under attack by anti-gay parents and voters, including a neighboring school board member, Van Shaver, for the article, titled, “It’s OK To Be Gay,” which was written by a student and published in the school’s yearbook.
At the beginning of May, Van Shaver, one of Yoakley’s key opponents, wrote:
If in fact it was Mr. Yoakley or any other teacher who allowed this article to be published in the year book, they should be dismissed from the school immediately. If it is found or known that Mr. Yoakley or any other teacher at any time has had any conversations or discussions with this student or any other student about their sexual orientation, sexual activities or anything about their private lives prior to those students being of legal age, those teachers should be charged with child sex abuse by an authority figure and arrested.
“I’m not happy with the reassignment, but will make the most of it and use it as an opportunity to grow as a teacher,” Yoakley told the Student Press Law Center via email. “I think that because I had done nothing that warranted my dismissal and that since I refused to acquiesce to the principal’s suggestion that I resign, the system decided that the only way they could show that they had taken action was to move me to another school.”
The story prompted strong reactions from community members against its publication, with some circulating a letter demanding a response and encouraging others to “take a stand for our faith.”
A separate group — called “Take A Stand Against The Ignorance In Lenoir City” on Facebook — has encouraged more tolerance and openness by the district.
The Student Press Law Center’s Seth Zweifler writes that Yoakley, “believes last week’s reassignment was a move ‘designed to appease a small, but vocal, group of voters.”
Superintendent Wayne Miller, who made the decision, denied this, saying instead that the yearbook never obtained Mitchell’s permission to run the piece.
“Whether I think the content is appropriate or not is less the issue here than the fact that if we know we are going to publish controversial things and don’t bother to get the student’s permission, that’s a problem,” Miller said.
He added that “the courts have already been clear that these [student] publications are not open public forums … and it was reasonable to think this story was going to create some issues.”
Yoakley, though, said Mitchell knew clearly that he was being interviewed for the yearbook, and had even openly expressed pride over the story soon after its publication.
Despite pressure from community members, Yoakley said the decision to allow the article was clear cut.
“I view the school yearbook and newspaper as student media. They make the editorial decisions, they decide the content and layout,” he said. “I have been the adviser for six years and have developed a philosophy that I think falls in line with student productions across the country.”
Though Yoakley does not plan to pursue any legal action against the district, SPLC Attorney Advocate Adam Goldstein believes both Yoakley and his students could have a strong case, even though nobody was fired.
“If the change in duties is perceived as retaliatory, it can still be the basis for a lawsuit,” Goldstein said.
He added that the minimal legal standard for determining whether a source has given permission to be interviewed by a reporter is whether a person of “ordinary intelligence” would recognize that what is happening is, in fact, an interview.
“If the school thinks that a graduating senior can’t tell when he’s being interviewed, then the yearbook is the least of their problems with their educational offerings,” he said.
According to Miller, this is not the first time that Yoakley has allowed “inappropriate content” to make its way into either the yearbook or newspaper. He believes Yoakley has not always exercised appropriate oversight over the publications, and hopes that his reassignment will allow him to be “more successful.”
That “inappropriate content”?
Earlier this year, as The New Civil Rights Movement reported, a student wrote an op-ed chastising the Lenoir City school system for promoting prayer before board meetings and football games. “I feel that my rights as an atheist are severely limited when compared to other students who are Christians,” the student wrote. The school administration refused to allow the piece to be published in the school newspaper so the student sent it to the local newspaper, where it was published and reprinted elsewhere, causing a firestorm among the local citizens who do not support the constitutionally-required separation of church and state.
“In this twisted world we live in, some may believe It’s OK to be gay but it’s darn sure not OK for teachers to be promoting homosexuality in our high schools,” school board member Van Shaver wrote in a blog post, “It’s Not OK,” on his personal blog, in which he claims the yearbook article is “promoting a gay life style.”
And as New Civil Rights Movement writer Scott Rose stated earlier this month, it may have violated federal statutes had the article on the gay student not been allowed to run.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the Student Press Law Center as the Southern Poverty Law Center. We apologize for the error.
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