This story was updated at 6:42 pm CT.
Yesterday, the Nebraska School Activities Association asked high school senior and state poetry champion Michael Barth to change his poetry selection for an appearance on an NET Television showcase of best performers in the state's speech competition.
Barth, from Gordon-Rushville High School, won the Class C-1 poetry division at the Nebraska State Speech Championships. The poems he performed, which include “Swingset” by Andrea Gibson and as well as lyrics from the song “Same Love” by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, focused on LGBTQ identity and acceptance.
An NSAA committee selected Barth to record his poems for a showcase of 10 of the state’s speech champions for broadcast on NET Television. Yesterday, the committee asked Barth to change his poems because of their “controversial” themes.
Rhonda Blanford-Green, executive director of the NSAA, stated to multiple media outlets that the NSAA asked Barth to change his poetry selection because they didn’t want the program to appear to be promoting an agenda. The NSAA reversed their decision this afternoon and will allow him to perform the poems of his choosing on NET Television.
In the press release, the NSAA stated that the organization wanted to preempt any negative attention to the broadcast due to past controversy over a non-discrimination policy. "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," Blanford-Green said in the release.
Barth himself missed most of the controversy about his performance because on Wednesday he was on his way to Lincoln to record his performance for NET Television. His initial reaction to the NSAA's request was surprise. "To be honest, it kind of hurt, (because) it felt like they were trying to shut down a certain demographic of people from the speech community entirely," Barth said.
When he found out the NSAA had decided to allow his poems after mounting public pressure and attention, Barth said, "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."
A Facebook page in support of Barth was created today (Wednesday) and has more than 1100 members as of this afternoon. A petition calling for the NSAA to allow Barth to perform his original selection was also created today and currently has more than 400 signatures, with a goal of 500, to send to Blanford-Green. ACLU Nebraska issued a statement in support of Barth’s right to choose whichever poems he wanted for his performance.
Before the NSAA's announcement, NET General Manager Mark Leonard had decided that NET Television 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."
For Barth, the poems he performed for the competition and will perform for broadcast have a personal meaning for him.
"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."
As a result of today's controversy, Barth also learned about what he's willing to do in defense of his own personal convictions. If the NSAA hadn't changed its mind, Barth said he wouldn't have changed his performance. "I would have just gone there and been ready to perform whether they wanted me or not, and if they were gonna turn me down, they were gonna turn me down," he said. "I guess I would have turned around and gone back to school. I wasn’t gonna change it. It’s something I’m passionate about."
Barth's performance will be included in the "Best of the Best" program that will air on NET1 on Sunday, April 20, at 9 a.m. and rebroadcast on NET2. The full program will also be available online.