Update: NSAA Reverses Course on State Speech Controversy


The Nebraska School Activities Association's decision to ask a student not to perform poetry about gender identity has sparked a firestorm and they were flooded with comments on social media and eā€“mails in their inbox to the tune of nearly 60 messages a minute.

Michael Barth, a student at Gordon-Rushville, won the Class C-1 poetry competition, which included verses about gender identity.

As a state champion, he was asked to perform on a public television program highlighting student speech competitors.

Barth's speech coach said she was told by NSAA that Barth should choose another piece to perform, saying his poetry was inappropriate to put on the television broadcast.

The resulting outcry prompted NSAA to revisit its decision. Late Wednesday afternoon, they issued a press release about the attention.

It stated, "In an attempt to divert negative attention from the "Best of the Best" speech production, a decision was made to focus on the student's achievements and the activity of Speech in Nebraska. We were encouraged by the amount of support for Michael Barth and freedom of speech."

The NSAA's board of directors, along with Nebraska Educational Television and Gordon-Rushville High School administration announced Michael would be allowed to deliver his poetry interpretation as originally performed at the NSAA Speech Championships.

"The intent of my decision was not to stifle freedom of speech, but rather to avoid any negative connotations for individuals within this statewide production," said NSAA Executive Director Rhonda Blanford-Green. "The NSAA will continue to advocate for all students and promote equitable opportunities through activity participation."

The ACLU of Nebraska said earlier it appeared to be a violation of Barth's free speech.

In a letter to the NSAA, the ACLU says the activity association's policy on inappropriate speech content is "unconstitutionally vague and that censoring this particular speech on any grounds is unconstitutional."

ACLU of Nebraska legal director Amy Miller said, "Claiming that this particular speech advances a political agenda is particularly troubling. The lives of gay and transgender people should be able to be discussed without being labeled as a political agenda. It's fascinating that generation after generation keeps making the same mistake and thinking that somehow high school students can't handle these topics. The court has spoken and said they can handle it."

Speech coaches, judges, and competitors across the state have rushed to Barth's defense, posting their support online. Some of the other student speakers were even considering boycotting their own taping of the TV special to show support.

Barth's poetry readings included lyrics from the popular song "Same Love" by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis.

The final poem in the program is called "Swingset" by Andrea Gibson. Speech coaches say it is told from the perspective of a female kindergarten teacher who uses her students to teach a lesson about gender identity.

The NSAA asks schools to comply with standards about inappropriate material. School administrators are asked to examine speech content and make sure they are "acceptable in our community."

"We respect and support Michael we are very proud of him and think he has done a good job," said Superintendent Merrell Nelsen of Gordon-Rushville.

Michael's uncensored performance and those of other state winners will air on NET Sunday, April 20 and the full program will be available online.