Daily Tar Heel at UNC Defends Decision to Identify Student in Story as Gay

The Daily Tar Heel at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill broke one of the more interesting stories of the young school year last week.  The paper revealed that a campus Christian a capella group kicked out one of its student members because his beliefs about homosexuality diverge from the organization’s official stance.

Among the details adding to the controversy, the most prominent subtext of the whole shebang is that the former group member is gay, begging questions about whether the removal was about lifestyle choices as well as views.

The news is obviously explosive on a number of levels: How much freedom should campus groups have to dictate terms of membership?  What is the difference between exclusivity and outright discrimination?  What does this say about the current chasm between faith and homosexuality within higher education?  And what is the university’s role in all this re: its funding of the group and its general equality policies?

In respect to the latter, as DTH staff writer Andy Thomason confirmed, “The decision, along with the group’s status as a student organization, highlights a gray area in the university’s non-discrimination policy.  The policy gives student groups the right to limit membership to those who share a certain set of ideas, as long as no student is excluded on the basis of personal characteristics– including sexual orientation.”

The paper fearlessly broaches this orientation issue right away in its report.  While the a capella group director maintains the only problem is the student’s perspectives on homosexuality, the story puts the student’s own sexuality front and center– a strong hint that it believes this may have been another motivating factor for his ouster.  In both the headline and the start of the second sentence, the former member is identified as gay.

Publishing a student’s sexual orientation on the front page should never be done lightly.  As expected, the decision earned enough criticism and questions that editor-in-chief Steven Norton wrote a letter to readers outlining the staff’s rationale.

Among Norton’s bottom-line arguments: 1) The student spoke with the paper on the record.  2) While not necessarily proclaiming his homosexuality to the world, the student was already ‘out’ to those closest to him.  And 3) After the reporting due diligence was done, it did appear the student’s sexual orientation was a major part of the debate about the group’s removal decision and what the decision means for the university.

In Norton’s words: “The Daily Tar Heel didn’t out Will Thomason.  In the past 24 hours, some have refuted that fact. What those responders didn’t know was that before the story was published, Thomason was already out to the people who mattered– his friends and family.  Those who took issue with our decision also wouldn’t have had a full understanding of the story if the line, ‘Thomason, who is gay, …’ weren’t included in a story about his beliefs on homosexuality and their direct correlation to his ouster from Psalm 100.  The DTH didn’t take that line lightly. The decision to come out can be a difficult one, and we know that broadcasting one’s sexual orientation atop the front page isn’t always appropriate.  It was in this instance.”

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  2. […] The story, reported on College Media Matters, the Associated Collegiate Press blog, presents some ethical dilemmas faced in student newsrooms. The Daily Tar Heel at the University of North Carolina reported on a student’s ouster from a campus religious group because of his views on homosexuality. Further, it appears that the student’s homosexuality also contributed. […]