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Catholic school deletes student's coming out story

November 17, 2010

MINNESOTA -- Administrators at Benilde-St. Margaret's School, a Catholic preparatory school, pulled an editorial and column from the student newspaper's website last week that disagreed with the Catholic Church’s stance on gay marriage.

The column, which describes Sean Simonson’s life and struggles as an openly gay teen, starts off with the writer admitting he has contemplated suicide.

It goes on to encourage other students, gay and straight, to fight against the injustice.

"I need you to help me make this world a better place for both of us and everyone else like us," he wrote. "And all of you who don’t have to undergo this horror daily, it’s up to you to help. Don’t stand by and let hatred go on. Don’t sit back and watch your friends be discriminated against. Reach out and help those who might need it."

Officials also removed an editorial that criticized the Catholic Church and Archbishop John C. Nienstedt for producing and mailing out a DVD that endorsed a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

Morgan Rogers, online editor-in-chief of The Knight-Errant, said the staff watched the video together in class and discussed the best way to address their feelings on it.

"We wanted to do more hard-hitting stories and less fluff pieces," she said. "But we knew we had to be cautious."

Rogers said the staff met with Sue Skinner, the school's principal, to talk over their position and left the meeting with her support.

The editorial, which was reposted on a local news website, states: "We as a staff believe the Church has both the right to have a teaching on this issue and to deny homosexuals the right to get married within the Church itself. However, we also feel that the DVD many of our families received is inappropriate due to the civil nature of the issue, and the content is nothing more than simple, emotional propaganda."

Rogers said when the paper was distributed Thursday, the staff had the support of the administration. However, after the editorial and column received about 150 online comments, the school decided to pull the two opinion pieces several hours after they were initially posted.

Rogers said administrators told the staff they decided to pull the articles because they felt the comments were producing an unsafe atmosphere for students who have not come out.

The school released an official statement on the matter that was then posted in the editorial’s place.

"Benilde-St. Margaret’s School is committed to ensuring that all students are safe, respected, and protected. As a Catholic school, our responsibility is to respect and uphold the dignity of the vulnerable, including students who are attracted to the same sex," according to the statement.

"The online comments regarding the editorial and the opinion piece in question were creating a disrespectful environment as well as confusion about the teachings of the Catholic Church; therefore, the administration exercised its prerogative to have the material removed from the website," according to the statement.

A school spokeswoman declined further comment.

Rogers said she understands the administration’s decision but wished it would have handled the situation differently.

"At first, it seemed that they didn't have a logical rational, but now we feel like the sincerity and reason is there," she said.

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said the private school's administration had every right to take down the articles but questioned whether it was the best course of action.

"You never want to let the hostility of the audience drive you to censorship," he said. "If the comments really are the concern, then there were more limited and better ways to address the concern than shutting down the whole conversation."

LoMonte went on to add that the school may not have sent the best message to its students, specifically the author of the column, by taking it off the Web.

"The student's column was a cry for acceptance," he said. "The last thing a bullied person needs is to be told to shut up. He’s just being bullied a second time."

Rogers said the staff is now working on a news story about the recent controversy and is working with the administration to republish the staff member's column on the paper's website without the comments.

"It's important to note that the school is handling it and talking about the issue," she said. "I’m just glad we were able to start the discussion."

By Chelsea Keenan, SPLC staff writer

© 2010 Student Press Law Center

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