UPDATED: LGBT groups demand retraction of Kan. student's homosexuality editorial
Activists will gather tomorrow at district offices
UPDATE 2/23: After Wichita High School East administrators released a statement Wednesday, the organizations decided to cancel a planned press conference regarding “hate speech” in the student newspaper. Jackie Carter, pastor of First Metropolitan Community Church, one of the groups involved in the press conference, confirmed the cancellation. She said all groups involved “wanted to give the school adequate and appropriate time to follow through on those responses.”
The school maintains the rights of student journalists to publish the editorial in its statement, as well as reiterating its commitment to “a safe and nurturing environment for all students.” It also said, “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.”
KANSAS — A Wichita High School East newspaper editorial that cites anti-gay passages from the book of Leviticus has activists demanding a retraction from school administrators who have been supportive of the students’ freedom of speech.
The Center for Human Rights announced plans to hold a joint press conference at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Alfred E. Morris Administrative Center in Wichita, with other LGBT groups to address “hate speech” in a Messenger editorial published Feb. 11.
Colin Johnson’s editorial — “Homosexual teens alienated by current societal trends” —has caused a flurry of controversy for the newspaper staff. In it, Johnson wrote that older generations have “anti-gay sentiment,” which makes it difficult for young people to accept same-sex relationships.
“These relationships just are not normal,” he wrote. “One thing to notice is that there is legislation against homosexual marriage. However, there are no legislative restrictions to same sex dating. Dating does often lead to marriage, so same sex dating should be frowned upon.”
Johnson continues by quoting verses from the Bible’s book of Leviticus, including one that Johnson interprets as calling for the death penalty for gay couples.
He concludes that same-sex dating in high school is a “social disruption, and should be kept out of school to ensure our educational mission with as little of a distraction as possible.”
James Pryor, CEO of The Center for Human Rights, said the goal of the press conference is that the newspaper article be retracted. He said the groups want to make the administration aware of sensitive issues, as well as find out how federal funding will be used by the school to address bullying.
“We would like to find out what the school district is going to be doing to address the issue of harassment and bullying, and particularly hate speech,” he said.
Pryor said the organization agrees “100 percent on freedom of speech,” but the article is causing a “hostile environment for LGBT teens and also the student [writer].”
Newspaper adviser Susan Martin said school administrators have been supportive of the student’s freedom of speech.
“The administration has been incredible,” she said. “[The administration] has taken the viewpoint that the students do have the right to freedom of expression, whether we like it or not. The editors did write a response yesterday and it was posted on our website.”
“Material shall not be suppressed solely because it involves political or controversial subject matter,” according to the act.
Pryor said U.S. Supreme Court rulings on student publications trump the Kansas act.
“They cite some statutes in there and if they read the statute all the way through they would know that there are some things that can be prohibited,” he said. “The Supreme Court also says that high schools have not only the right but the responsibility to censor language if it causes any harm to any students.”
Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said states can always give people more rights than the constitution — or the Supreme Court — allow.
“The people calling on the school district to start censoring the newspaper need to be very careful about getting what they ask for,” he said. “For every article that is against gay rights, there will be 10 censored where students are exposing anti-gay bullying or asking for acceptance. Once you open the censorship bottle, you can’t put the cork back into it.”
Newspaper co-editor Jessica Thomas said the school board has been supportive of the newspaper staff as well. She said administrators have called every day check on them.
“Originally, when it first was published, we did have trouble at school with people coming up to the newsroom,” she said, “but after that it seemed to die down a lot in the school, but it has picked up more on our website and on other websites.”
Co-editor Salman Husain said the goal of the paper’s website is to give people a chance to respond to the editorial. He said it has been frustrating as some people turned against them.
Martin said some alumni are furious and don’t think the editorial should have been published.
“Some people asked for apologies,” she said. “I asked my reporter if he wanted to apologize, his answer was ‘no.’ The editors did apologize in their response for one thing, and that was that they had not edited the article well enough for quality.”
Co-editor Lauren Graber said the editors think they could have worked with Johnson to better edit the article.
“We all agree that he definitely had the right to publish the article and we believe that he definitely should be able to publish his opinions,” she said. “We probably just would have changed how we went about publishing those views.”
Husain said he doesn’t think that Johnson was promoting or encouraging violence against gay individuals. He said the Messenger has published pro-LGBT articles in the past and the newspaper has an ethical and journalistic obligation to show all viewpoints.
“We are responding to it more in the next issue of the paper,” Thomas said. “So far, it’s been kind of trying for all of us, but it’s good that we can see how well we work together through things like this and how supportive our adviser and administrators are.”
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