State speech champion Michael Barth made a tough decision Wednesday — to disregard a request by the Nebraska School Activities Association to change his performance for a NET television show — and then he headed to Lincoln.
Somewhere around North Platte — about 3½ hours southwest of his hometown of Gordon — he found out the NSAA had reversed its decision and would let him perform the poems that had won him a Class C-1 title.
"After I got the news that they'd reversed the decision, I didn't know how to react. I'm so happy," he said in a telephone interview. "It felt so amazing to have so much support from my community."
NSAA officials said they had asked the high school senior at Gordon-Rushville Public Schools to perform a different poem because they felt his winning piece on gender identity promoted an agenda that could be controversial and detract from the goal of the NET Television program to promote speech and highlight top performers.
Saying the NSAA decision amounted to censorship, the high school speech community rallied behind Barth. It created a Facebook page called “Support Michael and Acceptance of Speech,” called NSAA officials and alerted news media.
Barth and his speech coach drove across Nebraska with spotty cell service, allowing them only short glimpses of the growing controversy.
But it was building: Nearly 1,500 people joined the Facebook page, a petition was started, the ACLU accused the NSAA of violating Barth’s free speech rights, NET officials said they were prepared to let him perform his winning poems, and some high school speech coaches considered asking their students to boycott the taping session.
Shortly after 4 p.m., the NSAA reversed its decision and said it would allow Barth to perform his original poems on the NET production called “Best of the Best.”
“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.”
Barth said he never intended his poems to promote an agenda on gay or transgender issues. He said they send a message about acceptance. He performed two poems: Lyrics from musician Macklemore’s “Same Love” and a slam poem called “Swing Set” by Andrea Gibson, about a kindergarten teacher whose students don’t know -- or care -- if she’s a man or a woman.
He removed all profanity and some things that might be considered offensive, he said, and state judges did not make any comments about the content being inappropriate.
“I knew I had to do a poetry program on something that mattered,” he said. “I wanted to do something I felt passionate for. I’ve been bullied my entire life for being a 'feminine' man, and it spoke to me.”
Bridgeport speech coach Glen Lussetto said he judged Barth's speech twice and agreed it promotes acceptance, not an agenda -- and he was not offended.
“And I’m about as conservative as they come in this speech community,” he said.
Blanford-Green, the NSAA executive director, stressed that she was not uncomfortable with the content. And she’s seen the other side of this controversy.
Last year, she tried to introduce a non-discrimination policy for transgender students. That proposal erupted in controversy, and the NSAA board decided to let districts handle the issue on a local level.
That experience played a part in her original decision, she said Wednesday.
“I don’t want the speech platform to be seen as pushing an individualized agenda,” she said. “If we have the opportunity to promote speech in a positive light that doesn’t create controversy or debate about students, content, the activity of the NSAA -- that drove my decision.”
But that’s not how others saw it.
The ACLU of Nebraska sent a letter telling NSAA officials their policies on speech -- “which instructs school officials to censor free speech so it does not offend the moral standards of the community” -- are unconstitutionally vague.
The NSAA does not get to determine what will “offend … moral standards,” said ACLU Legal Director Amy Miller, and "certainly does not have the ability to use that as grounds for altering a speech."
She also said the lives of gay and transgender people should be able to be discussed without the conversation being labeled as a political agenda.
David Feingold, NET's assistant general manager of content, said Wednesday afternoon that NET was prepared to broadcast whichever selection Barth chooses to perform.
"We're planning on the original piece. It will be part of the program," he said. "We have no plans to make any changes. Whatever he brings in, he brings in."
"Best of the Best" is set to air on NET 1 April 20 at 9 a.m. and rebroadcast on NET 2. The full program will also be available online. The program will be taped Thursday.
Merrell Nelsen, superintendent of Gordon-Rushville Public Schools, said the district supports Barth and feels there’s some confusion about the message of his performance.
"I talked to Michael and wished him the best, and told him he would have to make his own decisions, and we’d support him whatever he decided to do," he said. “I think once a person hears what he's trying to say, you'd say, 'Yeah, that's a good idea.'"
Matt Davis, the speech coach at Lincoln East High who had considered asking his student to boycott the NET production to support Barth, said he used what happened as a “teachable moment” about the power of the spoken word.
“I told (my afternoon classes) about the situation and what had happened," Davis said. "This stuff was mobilized in the last 12 hours. It’s pretty amazing.”
Barth, who was accepted in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film, said the NSAA's initial decision upset him, but in the end, there was no other option than for him to stand his ground.
“I was nervous at first but making the decision was really easy because I didn’t want to change. I didn’t want to back down from my views. I didn’t want to let them win,” he said.
And he’s heartened that there’s an air of change in the speech community about topics like gender identity. But he doesn’t feel he’s the one creating the change.
“I’m just a messenger," he said. "I put together two poems, and I read them. That’s all I did. When all of this stuff was going on today, I was in a car with no reception and no updates about what was happening.”
On Thursday, he’ll read the poems again.
“I’m going to go in there and give the performance of my life,” he said.