Tenn. adviser removed after yearbook publishes profile of gay student

Superintendent claims student did not give permission

TENNESSEE — A journalism adviser who was at the center of a controversy surrounding a yearbook article about an openly gay student has been reassigned.

Lenoir City High School English teacher James Yoakley was informed last week that he has been removed from the yearbook and newspaper and transferred to Lenoir City Middle School.

The school district’s decision comes about a month after the LCHS yearbook published a profile of then-senior Zac Mitchell. In the piece, titled “It’s OK to be gay,” Mitchell discusses his decision to come out as gay during eighth grade.

The story — which was packaged with a photo — also features direct quotes from Mitchell about an experience he had cross-dressing with a friend.

Yoakley, who served as chair of the school’s English department and has been advising for six years, believes the district’s move was in direct retaliation to the content.

“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,” he said in an 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.

LCHS also made headlines in February when its administration refused to allow an editorial about atheism and the separation of church and state to appear in the Panther Press, the school’s student newspaper.

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.”

Yoakley said sentiments like these have made him “stressed, anxious and worried” over the past few months.

“Every time my phone rang, an announcement was made or I received an email, I got sick to my stomach,” he said. “I never imagined this would create the controversy it did.”

By Seth Zweifler, SPLC staff writer

advisers, Lenoir City High School, news, Tennessee