Schools need ‘passionate conversations’

Published 8:49 am Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Column: Gene Policinski, Inside the First Amendment

No doubt it’s more efficient to run a school without any disruption, complaint or controversy.

But does an absence of challenges, conflicts or intellectual collisions automatically make a school better? Make teaching more effective? Learning any more likely to occur?

Gene Policinski

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James Yoakley, an 11th-grade English teacher at Lenoir City High School in eastern Tennessee, was transferred recently to Lenoir City Middle to teach eighth-grade English — in a move that Superintendent Wayne Miller said was “for more efficient operation of the school.”

Yoakley was chairman of the high school’s English department and faculty supervisor of the high school’s newspaper and yearbook for the past six years. His “efficient” transfer follows two controversies in the past school year involving LCHS student publications.

In February, officials would not allow the high school paper to publish an article by the editor, a senior, on what it was like to be an atheist in a school where most students are Christian. The article also accused administrators, teachers and coaches of promoting Christian beliefs, noting the practice of conducting Christian prayers before school board meetings and student events.

In early May, some parents and others complained about a high school yearbook article in which a male senior student discussed being gay in Lenoir City.

Yoakley was informed of the transfer just before the Memorial Day weekend. The reassignment was “designed to appease a small, but vocal, group of voters,” he told the Student Press Law Center in a May 29 article.

The two incidents provoked months of community and national debate — and complaints. said some have called for “a criminal investigation into Yoakley’s influence on his students,” and for prosecution on child sex-abuse charges of any teacher who talks with students about their sexual orientation.

Yoakley has defended the articles, telling that he tried to allow students “to make their own decisions about what should be published and which issues are important to the other students.” He told the newspaper he was “proud of the work his students have done this year.”

After newspapers and websites nationwide published the article banned from the student newspaper, the school board agreed to end prayers before school board meetings and football games. An online group, “Take A Stand Against The Ignorance In Lenoir City” on Facebook, has formed to encourage more tolerance by the school district.

Yoakley’s experience is typical of what Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said was a combination of a “gradual erosion of student free expression rights” and “more aggression on the part of school officials.”

The federal courts have abdicated their protective role in terms of student speech, LoMonte said, sending a “message that administrators pretty much can get away with anything when it comes to student free expression.”

Superintendent Miller said in February that topics of sexuality, politics and religion generally were to be avoided in Lenoir student publications because they might inspire disruptive “passionate conversations.”

That’s bad? Freedom of speech and of the press can be defined as an unending series of “passionate conversations” — between citizens, between the governed and those elected to govern, and between those who would preserve the status quo and those who would assemble and petition for change.

Schools should be test labs for our core freedoms. They should be places that encourage the exploration of free expression and an understanding that religious liberty means government may not favor or disfavor any particular faith, even one that locally is in the majority.

Yes, at times that core-freedoms lab may make schools run less “efficiently” than some might like. Discussions by students might make parents uncomfortable. They might prompt community dialogue on long-held practices. They might provoke difficult conversations with those adults – or bloc of voters – who would control, quiet or censor the outspoken.

But effective First Amendment education that prepares our younger citizens to fully participate requires both lessons in the classroom and leadership by example in the schoolhouse. Leadership by example – now, that would be “efficient.”


Gene Policinski is senior vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, 1207 18th Ave. S., Nashville, Tenn., 37212. Web: Email: