Controversial Speech Performance Offers Opportunity To Learn

Michael Barth records his controversial poetry performance for NET Television's "Best of the Best" program. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)
Several speech students from around the state watch as Michael Barth records his performance. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)
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April 3, 2014 - 5:00pm

Michael Barth, is the Nebraska poetry state champion in Class C-1. The senior from Gordon-Rushville High School won with a selection about gender identity and acceptance of transgendered people.  On Tuesday, the NSAA said Barth’s selection was too controversial to air as part of NET Television’s "Best of the Best" production. The NSAA reversed its decision and said Barth could record his performance without any changes.


Michael Barth's performance of the controversial poetry selection:

Before Barth recorded his performance, both he and NSAA Executive Director Rhonda Blanford-Green had a conversation with NET News reporter Ryan Robertson at the NET studios in Lincoln. Barth and Blanford-Green were eager to speak to one another.

Below is video and a transcription of the edited version of that conversation that aired on NET Radio.

Blanford-Green:  Where my heart is in equity and gender as a minority female, there’s no way my intent would be to be a homophobe or a discriminatory person.  So I had to separate myself from some of the comments.  Yes. 

Barth:I know, believe me, I never—that never crossed my mind that you were homophobic or you hated the message or you opposed it in any way.  The people who did support that comment, I told them, don’t think that.  She’s a very nice lady.  I talked to her.  You have to realize she was very stressed out yesterday. 

Blanford-Green: Yeah.  But you know what Michael?  As I sent my press release, I was so encouraged by the support.  I mean you cannot not feel good about people having a passion or a commitment to something so strong that I’m gonna email you from Boston.  I’m gonna email you from Alaska.  I’m gonna email you from all these places to say reconsider.  Reconsider what your thought processes in this is and so anyway, when you talk, ...

NET NEWS:  You found out Sunday, Michael, that you had been chosen for Best of the Best.  There’s been a lot of history between the two of you the last couple of days.  And now is the first time that you guys have been actually sat down and to meet.  All that to say this, Michael, what do you hope the message is that Rhonda and the NSAA take away from what we’ve learned the last few days?

Barth: Through my poetry or just through the entire?

NET NEWS:  The entire ordeal. What role does the NSAA have in choosing the contents of a speech performance?

Barth:  Well, I feel that the NSAA should encourage the students to have these passionate and maybe controversial topics in their speeches if they have messages that people can relate to and people can grow from.  I certainly grown from this entire experience.  I’ve met wonderful people. There have been transgender people who have messaged me on Facebook, from Boston.  Somebody on the Facebook Support Group is from Paris, France, and they messaged me and that—this whole situation is blowing me away. 

NET NEWS:  Rhonda, as the student in this situation, what did you learn on content and the NSAA’s role?

Blanford-Green:  I think the NSAA has a huge responsibility to make sure that we are the oversight association.  To make sure that there are areas of content that we aren’t putting out in the public that’s not our—in certain ways, I mean we—that is not—Our role is to make sure that we are educationally-based and we’re a high school component.  And you just can’t walk down the hall and say the F-word in a high school.  And you just can’t walk down the hall and tell some teacher to go to, you know, to take a hike.  And so we do have a responsibility to make sure that there’s some boundaries within the things that we are promoting, but in this case, I think that there was a fear factor in place to a certain extent based on a message that was strongly sent to our Association in the last six months about content and what our role was in discussing gender equity issues and gender identify issues that did play a little bit of a role in my decision when I was red-flagged about the content.  But going back to what did we learn?  I think that what I learned is social media and you know, some people say, oh there’s a bunch of wackos out there, but there were some very articulate and strong opinions that really educated me on some areas that as an executive director, I probably should look at in a bigger picture than just speech. 

NET NEWS:  Last year in June, the committee met.  The new rule with no lewd, vulgar, or profane material to be included in a competition of speech or drama.  This situation does not meet that criteria.  Is there talks of trying to expand that so that the NSAA has a greater reach on what kind of content is considered in appropriate?

Blanford-Green:  You know, I recently had an email exchange from—with the ACLU.  I’ve worked with the ACLU for years on some of the gender equity topics that I’ve dealt with and so what I’d like to do is get some clear parameters on what it is federally that we can and can’t do before I think we move forward with any types of changes.  I want to make sure that we’re within the boundaries and that we’re able to communicate what is legal.  I don’t want, you know, it’s nice to have these general conversations about freedom of speech and about censorship, but you know what the—if nothing else in the last two days, we need to know what the laws are and once we know what the laws are, then we can move forward, but we also don’t want to be so tied up in the law that we don’t allow freedom of expression and topics that maybe make people feel uncomfortable—have—not have a voice.  So there’s gonna be a good mix of that.  And we may even back off on some of this stuff.  On play production, we just need—we need to do our homework a little bit more on what are the laws and how far we can go with that and how restrictive we may have to be with that. 

NEW NEWS:  Michael, I’m sure you also agree there should be boundaries in speech.  Where do you think those boundaries should fall?

Barth:  Well, as she said earlier, obviously there shouldn’t be like the F bomb every other word, but it’s high school, but the whole no profane or lewd comment, it was very vague and I feel in some aspects, it does hinder certain content from being done.  Because my X-coach, she’s planning on doing a play off of Jesus Christ Superstar for one-acts.  And she was really scared that they were gonna get hit next year when they performed that because of the whole lewd and profane and what is actually offensive.  I feel like that should be spelled out a little bit better.  I don’t know how that can be done.  It’s up to you.  But I definitely feel like it should be spelled out more, so it doesn’t hinder creativity or any content that can be out there that does have a message that is very powerful. 

NET NEWS:  It’s been a whirlwind the last couple of days.  But in the end, you get to perform your poems as you had won at state championships.  Are you satisfied with the way the last couple of days have gone? 

BarthI’m satisfied that people did jump in and support this.  And I’m very happy that I get to perform my speeches, but I do feel kind of bad for all the stress that Rhonda was put through and.

Blanford-Green:  Ohhhh. Can I touch him?  Ohhh. Thanks.

Barth:  Like people would call me and it’d be like that evil lady.  No, she’s not evil.  She’s doing her job, but I’m just happy that people did support this and that it is bringing ... change in the future and I’m happy.  I’m very happy.

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