Teacher Who Faced Firing Over School Paper Column Honored

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The American University law school honored a high school newspaper adviser who faced losing her teaching job after the paper published an opinion column advocating tolerance of gays.

Amy Sorrell received the Mary Beth Tinker Award on Wednesday from the law school and the Marshall-Brennan Constitutional Literacy Project.

The award was named after a 13-year-old girl from Des Moines, Iowa, who in 1965 wore a black arm band to school along with some classmates to mourn soldiers killed in Vietnam. The school board suspended some students. The case went to the Supreme Court, which ruled in 1969 that students in public schools do have First Amendment rights.

Sorrell had been an English and journalism instructor at Woodburn’s Woodlan Junior-Senior High School. She was placed on paid leave March 19, two months after an opinion column advocating tolerance of homosexuals ran in Woodlan’s student newspaper, The Tomahawk.

School officials in the conservative Indiana community about 10 miles east of Fort Wayne said Sorrell did not comply with an agreement to alert the principal about controversial articles.

Last month, Sorrell reached a settlement with the East Allen County Schools district, which transferred her to Heritage Junior-Senior High School, barred her from teaching journalism for three years and required her to issue a written apology.

Sorrell detailed her experiences to at a luncheon in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday. She challenged those at the luncheon to work toward protecting student rights.

“This is something we need to do now – not wait until you are a victim of censorship,” she said. “We need to challenge schools to be advocates for students and to truly make schools a place for learning. Schools need to be places that harbor student rights, that encourage students’ thoughts and ideas even when they are unpopular.”

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