As many as 100 high school students walked out of a national journalism conference after an anti-bullying speaker began cursing, attacked the Bible and reportedly called those who refused to listen to his rant “pansy asses.”
The speaker was Dan Savage, founder of the “It Gets Better” project, an anti-bullying campaign that has reached more than 40 million viewers with contributors ranging from President Obama to Hollywood stars. Savage also writes a sex advice column called “Savage Love.”
Savage was supposed to be delivering a speech about anti-bullying at the National High School Journalism Conference sponsored by the Journalism Education Association and the National Scholastic Press Association. But it turned into an episode of Christian-bashing.
Rick Tuttle, the journalism advisor for Sutter Union High School in California, was among several thousand people in the audience. He said they thought the speech was one thing – but it turned into something else.
“I thought this would be about anti-bullying,” Tuttle told Fox news. “It turned into a pointed attack on Christian beliefs.”
Tuttle said a number of his students were offended by Savage’s remarks – and some decided to leave the auditorium.
“It became hostile,” he said. “It felt hostile as we were sitting in the audience – especially towards Christians who espouse beliefs that he was literally taking on.”
Tuttle said the speech was laced with vulgarities and “sexual innuendo not appropriate for this age group.” At one point, he said Savage told the teenagers about how good his partner looked in a speedo.
The conservative website CitizenLink was the first to report about the controversy. They interviewed a 17-year-old girl who was one of students who walked out of the auditorium.
“The first thing he told the audience was, ‘I hope you’re all using birth control,’” she told CitizenLink. “he said there are people using the Bible as an excuse for gay bullying, because it says in Leviticus and Romans that being gay is wrong. Right after that, he said we can ignore all the (expletive deleted) in the Bible.”
As the teenagers were walking out, Tuttle said that Savage heckled them and called them “pansy asses.”
The executive director of the National Scholastic Press Association provided Fox News with joint statement from the Journalism Education Association that was sent to members – after a number of people complained about Savage’s remarks.
“We appreciate the level of thoughtfulness and deliberation regarding Dan Savage’s keynote address,” the NSPA wrote. “some audience members who felt hurt by his words and tone decided to leave in the middle of his speech, and to this, we want to make our point very clear: While as a journalist it’s important to be able to listen to speech that offends you, these students and advisers had simply reached their tolerance level for what they were willing to hear.”
The NSPA said they did not have a prior transcript of Savage’s speech and that wish “he had stayed more on target for the audience of teen journalists.” They also said it provided a “teachable moment” for students.
As for Savage’s attack on people of faith?
“While some of his earlier comments were so strongly worded that they shook some of our audience members, it is never the intent of JEA or NSPA to let students get hurt during their time at our conventions,” they wrote.
However, not once did the NSPA or the JEA offer any apologies to the students or faculty advisors or anyone else in attendance.
Candi Cushman, who writes a blog on CitizenLink, noted the irony.
“Using profanity to deride the bible – and then mocking the Christian students after they left the room — is obviously a form of bullying and name-calling,” she wrote. “This illustrates perfectly what we’ve been saying all along: Too many times in the name of ‘tolerance,’ Christian students find their faith being openly mocked and belittled in educational environments.”
Tuttle said that he “felt duped” by the event. “There were Christian schools who went to the conference. To have this happen was disappointing and shocking.”
And for some of his students – they felt like the anti-bullying activist was in fact – the bully.
The NSPA said they should have done a better job preparing schools for what to expect.
Here’s the full statement provided by the NSPA and JEA:
“We appreciate the level of thoughtfulness and deliberation regarding Dan Savage’s keynote address at the JEA/NSPA spring convention in Seattle. Logan and I have had the opportunity, both in Seattle and by email, to hear from advisers who are passionately against and passionately supportive of the choice to invite him to speak.
Many who expressed concern said they were surprised by the content of the speech, and they wished JEA and NSPA had done a better job of preparing them for what was to be expected. This is a fair critique. When we invited Savage to speak, we asked that he discuss his “It Gets Better” project, which has been an unprecedented social media campaign that relates quite directly to high school students. He agreed and turned over details to his speaker’s bureau contact.
We did not have a prior transcript or outline of Savage’s speech (nor did we for any other speakers), and of course the question-and-answer portions of our keynotes can become unpredictable. Yet Savage has appeared regularly in the news media, so we were familiar with his general background and the broad range of viewpoints he has made publicly. That said, we wish he had stayed more on target for the audience of teen journalists.
Which brings us to the second chief concern some attendees have made, which is the fact that some actually felt hurt by Savage’s comments, especially those aimed at religious beliefs. While some of his earlier comments were so strongly worded that they shook some of our audience members, it is never the intent of JEA or NSPA to let students get hurt during their time at our conventions.
Some audience members who felt hurt by his words and tone decided to leave in the middle of his speech, and to this we want to make our point very clear: While as journalists it’s important to be able to listen to speech that offends you, these students and advisers had simply reached their tolerance level for what they were willing to hear. They left quietly, peacefully, without trying to draw attention to themselves. They did not try to interrupt the speaker or loudly protest his remarks.
We have already heard from some advisers who have turned this into a teachable moment for their students. Dan Savage and his “It Gets Better” project are legitimate newsmakers, and we encourage you to reflect on this topic in your newsrooms. Some student newspapers have already written stories for their publication regarding his speech, and others are sure to write columns or editorials regarding his viewpoints. What are the coverage opportunities for your students?
As a whole, we were very pleased with all of the educational opportunities at the Seattle convention and we hope our attendees feel the same. As always, we love to hear both the darts and laurels regarding all of our convention programming, including the keynotes.”