High school senior and state poetry champion Michael Barth was told by the Nebraska School Activities Association (NSAA) to change his ‘controversial’ poetry selection for a television appearance showcasing the best performers in the state's speech competition. After a groundswell of protest over NSAA’s stance, the association backed down and Barth won the day.
Barth had attended the Nebraska State Speech Championships and won a competition for performing spoken poetry. His winning selections included “Swingset” by Andrea Gibson (a poem that challenges conventional gender identity norms) and lyrics from “Same Love” by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis (a song that encourages acceptance of people of all sexual orientations).
Barth hails from the sprawling rural Gordon-Rushville School District in western Nebraska. With a total enrollment of fewer than 800 students, Barth’s district is closer to South Dakota and Wyoming than to the state capital of Lincoln, a six-hour drive away. One in four students in Gordon-Rushville is Native American.
Ten of Nebraska’s speech champions were to be featured on “Best of the Best,” a broadcast on the state’s public television network, NET. Rhonda Blanford-Green, executive director of the NSAA, explained that the association wanted Barth to change his poetry selection because “We don't want to use a showcase for the Best of the Best to promote personal agendas.”
While some critics accused Blanford-Green of insensitivity to LGBTQ youth, the story turns out to be more complicated: in 2013 she had introduced a non-discrimination policy at NSAA for transgender students. Her proposal created controversy, and the NSAA board decided to avoid taking a stand and to defer to local school districts. That experience influenced Blanford-Green’s decision to tell Barth to avoid material for his television appearance that addressed topics in sexuality:
“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."
Barth reacted to the NET controversy with surprise. "To be honest, it kind of hurt, [because] it felt like they [meaning NSAA] were trying to shut down a certain demographic of people from the speech community entirely.”
He explained his choice of material by placing it in the context of his experience as a student who did not conform to conventional gender norms: "I’m a very effeminate man, and I’ve gone through so much pain and intolerance because of that," Barth said. "The message of 'Swingset' is very close to my heart because it speaks out against that."
Barth said he never intended his poems to promote an agenda on gay or transgender issues.
He said they send a message about acceptance. “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.”
Barth’s supporters created a Facebook page with over 1,100 members, and a petition calling for the NSAA to reverse its demand garnered over 400 signatures. Others expressed their support for Barth via Twitter under the hash tag #LetMichaelSpeak. The groundswell encouraged Barth to stand his ground on freedom of expression.
Barth's mother, Kim Buchan, said that her son is a youth group member and a drama club student who has been accepted into the Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “The last time I talked to Michael,” she said, “I think he decided to dig his feet in…This is the speech he won with, it was seen by seven judges at state speech. They found nothing wrong with the content. And there is nothing wrong with the content.”
Some high school speech coaches whose districts were sending winners to appear on “Best of the Best” considered asking their students to boycott the taping session unless NSAA reversed its stance. Bridgeport speech coach Glen Lussetto said he judged Barth's speech twice and agreed it promoted acceptance, not an agenda -- and he was not offended. “And I’m about as conservative as they come in this speech community,” he said.
Barth’s own school district remained circumspect as the controversy played out on social media. Merrell Nelsen, superintendent of Gordon-Rushville Public Schools, described Barth as “an excellent young man.” Nelsen said he didn't want to discuss whether Barth’s topics were appropriate for NET. He simply stated, “We support Michael. We're very proud of him, think he's done a great job.”
Barth remained determined to perform his original selections for the NET television audience. “I was nervous at first but making the decision was really easy because I didn’t want to change, he said. “I didn’t want to back down from my views. I didn’t want to let [NSAA] win.”
In the face of mounting support for Barth, the NSAA unexpectedly reversed its decision and said it would support Barth’s decision to perform the material.
NSAA’s Blanford-Green said the association hadn’t intended to limit free speech. “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,” she said. “The NSAA will continue to advocate for all students and promote equitable opportunities through activity participation.”
Barth reacted to the NSAA’s reversal with elation: "I was screaming for joy just a little bit. It’s so humbling, and it’s such an honor that so many people jumped to support this. To support this message, to support this poetry, to support this demographic of people. It’s amazing."
Even before the NSAA's reversal, NET General Manager Mark Leonard had decided that the public television network would broadcast whatever poems Barth chose. "It's an expression of poetry, a free expression, and these are values that public media supports," Leonard said. "In terms of the nature of a competition like this, as well as poetry, I think it's expressing a student's personal point of view and, for me, that's valid."
David Feingold, NET's assistant general manager of content, said "We're planning on the original piece. It will be part of the program," scheduled for broadcast on April 20 at 9am Central Time. "We have no plans to make any changes. Whatever he brings in, he brings in."
 Joe Dejka, “Speech champ wins fight over project on gender identity,” Omaha.com, April 4, 2014, accessed April 9, 2014 at http://www.omaha.com/article/20140402/NEWS/140409670.
 Margaret Reist, “NSAA reverses course on gender-identity poems,” JournalStar.com, April 2, 2014, accessed April 9, 2014 at http://journalstar.com/news/local/nsaa-reverses-course-on-gender-identity-poems/article_ce6aa722-6391-5357-8dd0-08c23ca5b502.html.
 “High School Speech Champion Discusses NSAA's Temporary Block On Poem,” NETNebraska.org, April 2, 2014, accessed April 9, 2014 at http://www.netnebraska.org/article/news/high-school-speech-champion-discusses-nsaas-temporary-block-poem.