The firestorm over freedom of speech engulfs Shawano

In America, we try to preach tolerance and love for one another, but that is not always what we practice. We claim to be respectful of other viewpoints, but when the issue hits a little too close to home, who hasn’t wanted to shut the other side up?

Shawano has recently been in the national news, and not for something positive. In December, the high school’s newspaper printed two opinion pieces about whether gay people should be allowed to adopt children — one for and one against. After the paper came out, a firestorm erupted.

A few years ago, it would have been a fair bet to guess the writer in favor of gays adopting would have riled the masses and resulted in mass demand for tar and feathers. In this case, though, it was the writer opposed to the idea that caused a few gasps of horror.

Personally, it made me want to gag. It made others that I work with want to gag. The fact that anyone continues to use the Holy Bible to argue segregation and discrimination in this day and age is abhorrent.

Then a local parent took his objections to the school district and pushed for something to be done. That prompted Superintendent Todd Carlson to write a hasty apology, claiming the anti-gay column cultivated “a negative environment of disrespect” and was something that was “not appropriate or condoned by the Shawano School District.”

What exactly does that mean? Good question, and good luck getting the superintendent to tell you. He’s not talking to the media, although the Liberty Counsel, a nonprofit Christian legal service is claiming he had some choice words for Brandon Wegner, the 15-year-old who opined gays should not adopt.

According to a letter from Liberty Counsel, Carlson called Wegner “ignorant” and said his column amounted to “bullying.” The student was also apparently threatened with suspension for having an opinion. Most of the undistributed copies of the Hawks Post were scooped up, with the newspaper staff having to rip out Wegner’s column before the papers could be put back on the racks.

Liberty Counsel is now demanding that the Shawano School District apologize for civil rights violations committed by throwing Wegner under the big, yellow bus — metaphorically speaking — and threatening legal action if it does not. There is no word of a response yet, but if I were the superintendent, I’d look out for the thousands of students who go to school in Shawano and how their education would be impacted by the loss of taxpayer dollars to pay for a civil rights suit.

Do I think the op-ed piece was vile? It made my skin crawl. Do I think it should have been censored after the fact? I’ll probably be asked to turn in my rainbow, but the answer is no.

It’s not because I believe Wegner is right. His Biblical references come from the book of Leviticus, which seems to be one of the sections that clergy and laypeople tend to pick and choose from. (Shellfish, anyone?)

However, he was also smart enough to include other non-religious references, including Time magazine, which cited that more than a third of people in a study believe single people and gay people should not be allowed to adopt children. Granted, it’s a weak argument, but people make opinionated declarations with less source material.

The big issue I have is that the boy wasn’t the one pushing to have his op-ed piece in the paper. It was part of a class assignment, apparently, so why is he getting raked across the coals because of a checks-and-balances system that didn’t work?

We also have to remember that Wegner’s column did not run alone. There was also a counterpoint that ran next to it, so the Hawks Post’s opinion page was definitely more balanced than one would expect from a high school publication.

There are some boundaries with freedom of speech, like shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theatre. However, he was not calling on his fellow students and the community-at-large to directly hunt down homosexuals and kill them. Granted, at first glance it seems that way when he cites Leviticus 20:13, “If there is a man who lies with a male as those who lie with a woman, both of them have committed a detestable act; they shall surely be put to death. Their bloodguiltness is upon them.”

Is Brandon Wegner misguided? I think so, and I hope his fellow students reach out to him in an effort to show that there’s more than one side to the story. However, being misguided is not illegal unless you commit a crime, and the worst he’s done is stick his foot in his mouth.

We who believe that gay couples are just as capable of providing a loving home to children as straight couples need to remember that there are people who do not share our viewpoints. However, we can’t expect people to take us seriously if we’re pushing to silence the other side.

Todd Carlson should not have taken such drastic steps to address a parental complaint. Revisiting the newspaper’s policies might have been a better action than making students rip out the op-ed page and threatening to suspend the writer.

Carlson is making his case worse by not speaking to the media on the issue. By doing so, he’s making it look like his actions are beyond reproach. Sadly, being the superintendent of a public school district means you’re accountable to the public, and hiding behind short, written statements is not the way to solve problems. Dialogue and debate is.

Carlson could have turned this into a positive by bringing together the community to look at the issue. Instead, he opted to be reactive rather than proactive, and turned Shawano into a national laughingstock in the process. I’ll be interested to see what happens next.


One thought on “The firestorm over freedom of speech engulfs Shawano

  1. Cathy

    Unfortunately, nowadays “freedom of speech” means freedom just as long as I don’t disagree with you. We no longer have the tolerance as a society to let others have their opinion, even if it differs from our own.


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