It was not a good spring for James Yoakley.
The Lenoir City High School English teacher first found himself embroiled in controversy in February, when the school’s administration rejected a column written by the student newspaper editor, Krystal Myers, titled “No Rights: The Life of an Atheist.” Yoakley was the faculty advisor for the paper and took Myers’ side. The issue was protested by local Christian groups and made national news.
Then in May, Yoakley was in the thick of things again—this time for his role as faculty advisor to the yearbook, which ran an interview with an openly gay student. Loudon County school board member Van Shaver called for a criminal investigation into Yoakley, accusing him of improperly influencing his students. The incident again made national news.
Now it’s a new school year, and Yoakley has a new job. He’s looking to put the controversies behind him, but he’s also willing to share what he’s learned from his experiences. To that end, Yoakley will be the speaker at this month’s meeting of the Knoxville Writer’s Guild, discussing journalism and censorship. We spoke with him via e-mail.
So you were transferred to Lenoir City Middle School over the summer. How’s that working out?
It’s a great school. The faculty, the administration, the students, the parents are all very nice. I’ve never worked in such a positive atmosphere.
You told the Student Press Law Center at the time that your principal had asked you to resign in the wake of the yearbook controversy. What made you want to stay in the school district after everything that happened?
When the principal suggested I resign, I was fairly sure it wasn’t his idea. I refused but certainly thought about leaving. I spent the summer exploring other opportunities but decided to stay because I knew they wanted me to leave. The transfer to the middle school was, in my opinion, a punishment designed to make me want to leave. It’s funny how much I love teaching there.
If you had it all to do over again, would you handle anything differently?
I would insist the principal use his right to prior review. I’d never block the publication of the article. It’s student media. They decide on what’s in and what’s not. What’s interesting is that the controversy brought the article national attention. These students had their work read by a national audience. You couldn’t ask for a better education. This yearbook has received a first-class rating and a mark of distinction for its theme from the National Scholastic Press Association. I’ve been nominated for the Courage in Journalism award from the NSPA and the Student Press Law Center.
Do you think the censorship your students experienced at Lenoir City High School is endemic to the region? If so, what can be done to fight it?
I think it is and I’m not sure much can be done. Students have to do what’s right and teachers and administrators need to know the law.
What advice would you give to all the high school journalists out there?
Keep writing. Tackle difficult subjects. Know your rights. Appreciate those who stand up for you.