Local gay-rights advocates are calling for Wichita school leaders to "undo the damage and hurt" caused by a student newspaper column that they say promotes violence against homosexuals.
The opinion column, published Feb. 11 in the editorial section of the Messenger, East High School's student newspaper, says same-sex relationships "just are not normal" and "should be frowned upon."
Its author, an East High student, also cited a Bible verse that says men who lie with other men have "committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death."
District officials, the newspaper's faculty adviser and student editors say the column constitutes free speech and is protected by the First Amendment and the Kansas Student Publications Act.
But the column has drawn national attention and will be the focus of a news conference today outside the district administration building.
"This is not free speech but hate speech," said James Pryor, president of the Wichita chapter of the Center for Human Rights.
"They (administrators) have the responsibility to make sure our kids are safe," he said. "By allowing this hate speech to happen, it's just legitimizing bullying and hate, and it's irresponsible."
Jessica Thomas, a senior at East High and one of the newspaper's three editors, said she and her colleagues "knew the column could possibly be controversial."
"We don't necessarily agree or disagree. It's one person's personal opinion," she said. "But just because something can possibly be offensive does not mean we have the obligation to block the publishing of that material."
Kansas law "very tightly restricts" teachers' or school administrators' ability to interfere with what students want to publish, said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Washington, D.C.
The Kansas Student Publications Act specifically notes that "material shall not be suppressed solely because it involves political or controversial subject matter."
Material not protected by the act includes anything "libelous, slanderous or obscene," material that encourages or promotes criminal activity, or material that creates "substantial disruption of the normal school activity."
Sharon Martin, who teaches journalism at East High and advises the student newspaper, said she read the column and determined that it met the criteria for protected speech.
"I did not have the right to withhold publication," Martin said in an e-mail.
Critics say the column goes too far.
Michael Jones, an editor for the national website Change.org, wrote in a blog post last week that the East High column "suggested it would be moral to execute an entire population of students."
By late Tuesday, an online petition calling for East High to "take steps to address the damage that this article may have caused" had garnered more than 1,140 signatures.
The petition suggests that the newspaper run an article about the importance of safe schools and why it's "absolutely necessary" to talk about same-sex issues in the classroom. It also calls for officials to "send a school-wide message" against harassment of gay or lesbian students.
In a response published Thursday on the newspaper's website, its three editors wrote, "The assumption that the 'Messenger' as a paper supports intolerance is simply untrue."
Over the years the newspaper has published "numerous editorials and features exploring same-sex relationships" and supporting gay rights, the editors wrote. They urged readers to share their own opinions, which they pledged to publish online or in print.
District officials so far have expressed support for the paper's decision.
"As with opinions expressed in community media outlets... the views of one person do not necessarily represent the school or district position," the district said in a written statement.
"Our district will continue to encourage respectful dialogue and open conversation about a variety of issues, while at the same time ensuring the rights of all students."
LoMonte, of the Student Press Law Center, said critics calling for East High or other schools to censor more student material "need to be really careful about the genie they're letting out of the bottle."
"The most frequently censored content, bar none, is content by gay students talking about their desire to be accepted," LoMonte said.
Pryor, of the Center for Human Rights, said the East High student "has every right to say what he wants to say, but to publish it is different."
"To basically say people should be killed — that incites danger," he said. "We believe the district dropped the ball on this one."
Read a statement from the Wichita school district about the article
Concerning the Feb. 11, 2011 opinion piece published in the East High Messenger by Wichita East High School student reporter Colin Johnson, it is important to note several facts.
This article, like the hundreds of opinion pieces published throughout the school year in student newspapers throughout the Wichita Public Schools, is the opinion of one individual. As with opinions expressed in community media outlets such as the Wichita Eagle and local television stations, the views of one person do not necessarily represent the school or district opinion or position on an issue. Mr. Johnson’s piece is the expression of his opinion, a right afforded to him and all students through the First Amendment and the Kansas Student Publications Act, which specifically notes that “material shall not be suppressed solely because it involves political or controversial subject matter.”
East High administration, teachers and student editors recognized that the opinion of this one student author would prompt potentially uncomfortable reactions and passionate responses from individuals with a variety of perspectives. To this end, East High Principal Ken Thiessen met with members of his school’s student organization representing students with alternative lifestyles, explained the circumstances leading to publication of this student opinion, and invited students with a different viewpoint to respond with their own opinion piece. Messenger student editors prepared and published their own response to Mr. Johnson’s editorial, consulted with the Student Press Law Center in Washington, DC, and have continued the long-standing Messenger tradition of inviting students with different opinions to participate in the conversation.
The opinion of one student writer does not change the Wichita Public Schools’ commitment to providing a safe and nurturing environment for all students. Our high school student newspapers fulfill an important role as we work to prepare students to become critical thinkers and contributing citizens of our community upon graduation. Our district will continue to encourage respectful dialogue and open conversation about a variety of issues, while at the same time ensuring the rights of all students.