By Jordan Huether
Gordon-Rushville student Michael Barth, who recently returned from the Nebraska State Speech Competition with a gold medal in Poetry, has been asked by the Nebraska School Activities Association to change his speech two days before he is scheduled to tape for an upcoming “Best of the Best” episode for NET Television. NSAA Executive Director Rhonda Blanford-Green contacted Barth’s speech coach, Sandi Muirhead, on Tuesday asking him to change his speech or they will not air it, because “Nebraska isn’t ready for this.”
Blanford-Green later told the Lincoln Journal-Star her decision was partly influenced by the controversy last year when she introduced a non-discrimination policy for trans-gender students.
Despite the controversy and reports that Barth might not be allowed to perform, he and coach Sandi Muirhead are on their way to Lincoln now. Michael recently spoke out on Facebook, stating “This is Michael. I want to thank everyone for the amazing support! I wanted to comment on the news report on Lincoln journal star. Contrary to what Rhonda says in the article I did NOT agree to changing my program. She actually just hung up on me when she felt she had an answer.”
Michael’s mother stated “I am absolutely livid that this person thinks she has the power to basically censor a speech that conformed to all of the rules of the speech contest - obviously it won! His speech is not about gay rights, it’s about not judging someone based on how they look.” She added that “I am very proud of my son.”
Michael’s story is gaining attention from state and national news agencies and advocacy groups, and has spawned the Facebook group “Support Michael and Acceptance of Speech”, which already has over 750 members. According to the Facebook page, Michael’s program has “Same Love” and “Swing Set” poetry... minus any “iffy” lines.
The NSAA has now stated that "The decision in regard to Michael Barth’s Poetry piece is currently under review and a decision will be made at 4:00 CT."
According to NET News David Feingold, NET's assistant general manager of content, says NET is prepared to broadcast whichever selection Barth chooses to perform during the taping of the program Thursday. “Michael Barth is this year’s NSAA Class C1 poetry champion. NET Television is ready to record Michael’s award winning presentation, as originally planned. When Michael comes to the studio tomorrow, we’ll record the performance of his choosing, and will be included in the completed Best of the Best program which will air on NET 1 on Sunday, April 20th, at 9:00 a.m. and rebroadcast on NET 2. The full program will also be available on line,” Feingold said.
The NET production of NSAA Championships: Best of the Best is a special presentation of the top speech champions. It will be taped on April 3 in Lincoln and is scheduled to air on Sunday, April 20, at 9:00 a.m. central time on statewide NET-1/HD.
Updated 3:34 MT - The following is a press release from the NSAA
The NSAA recently experienced media attention regarding a non-discrimination policy to protect the rights of students. In an attempt to divert negative attention from the “Best of the Best” NET speech production, a decision was made to focus on the students achievements and the activity of speech in Nebraska.
We were encouraged by the amount of support for Michael and freedom of speech. The Executive Director in collaboration with the NSAA Board of Directors, Nebraska Educational Television and Gordon-Rushville High School administration has made the decision to allow Michael to deliver his poetry interpretation as originally performed at the NSAA Speech Championships.
“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.”