Benilde-St. Margaret censors student newspaper
Sean Simonson and Bernardo Vigil expected the latest issue of Benilde-St. Margaret's school newspaper, The Knight Errant, to cause a stir.
For one thing, the November 11 issue would contain a staff editorial, written primarily by Vigil, that condemned Archbishop John Niestadt's anti-gay-marriage DVD mailing. At a Catholic school like Benilde in St. Louis Park, that was a shot across the bow.
The paper would also include a personal essay written by Simonson, talking about his experience as a gay teen at Benilde, and his own flirtation with suicide.
But neither of the high school seniors anticipated that the articles would generate so much controversy that the school would yank them from the website within 30 hours, or that it would become a national news story.
"At the time, we thought the staff editorial might upset some people at the school, just because it was talking about the Archdiocese," says Vigil.
Simonson interjects: "We didn't think there would be as much reaction to my piece, because it's really just about my experience, and you can't really argue against someone's experience."
Vigil and Simonson are the kinds of friends who finish each other's sentences. They've known each other since Vigil moved here from North Carolina in 2008. When Simonson first came out as gay a year and a half ago, it was to his best friend—the girl Vigil is now dating.
Within hours of the articles going live, comments came streaming into the website. Traffic to the site spiked fivefold, then tenfold. Many thought the staff editorial of a Catholic high school newspaper shouldn't be criticizing the archbishop's actions. The reactions to Simonson's essay were more varied. Many praised Simonson's courage and his eloquence.
Other comments were painful for Simonson to read. But he approved virtually all of them, allowing them to run in the moderated comment section, because this was precisely the conversation he had been hoping to start.
The day after publication, Simonson was in the car on the way to Northwestern with his family to visit his brother and make a college visit when he told them about his essay.
He had just finished telling them when Benilde's principal, Sue Skinner, called his father's cell phone. She wanted to talk to Sean.
"She asked me to turn off the comments," Sean recalls. "I told her I was the one who had been approving them, even the ones I didn't agree with. I said the whole point of writing it was to start a dialogue, to get people talking, and it was finally happening. I didn't want to do that."
Not long afterward, Skinner made a second call, this one to the paper's faculty advisor, who was in Kansas City with much of the paper's staff to accept an award at the National High School Journalism Convention, the paper's third national award in three years.
Skinner demanded that both posts, as well as the accompanying comment threads, be deleted immediately. Taking their place was a short statement from Principal Skinner reading, "This particular discussion is not appropriate because the level of intensity has created an unsafe environment for students. As importantly, the articles and ensuing online postings have created confusion about Church teaching."
Vigil was on his bike, heading to his after-school job at Peavey Park, when he got a text message from a friend informing him that the plug had been pulled.
Vigil was furious. As soon as he got to work, he fired up his laptop. First, he re-posted both pieces on his Facebook page. Then he composed a press release detailing the censorship, and emailed it to every local news outlet he could think of.
Last Monday, Vigil's cell phone started blowing up. He couldn't pick up his phone, because he was in class, but that problem was soon remedied when his teacher kicked him out for wearing a duct-tape gag scrawled with the word "censored."
By the next news cycle, the story was national, appearing in the Associated Press, Gawker, and gay publications across the country. In the wake of a rash of suicides by bullied gay teens—one of them at nearby Anoka High school—the story of a school censoring a gay student's call for tolerance had real resonance.
The school was on the defensive, refusing interviews and releasing only a brief statement, which cited the Catholic Church's teaching those with "homosexual tendencies must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity."
Nonetheless, the statement went on, "the online comments regarding the editorial and the opinion piece in question were creating a disrespectful environment as well as confusion about the teachings of the Catholic Church; therefore, the administration exercised its prerogative to have the material removed from the website."
"In an academic environment, vigorous discussion is to be championed," says Dennis McGrath, a spokesman for the Archdiocese. "But at the same time, there are boundaries: One is the basic teachings and dictates of the church."
In trying to suppress the editorial, the school has only succeeded in drawing more attention to it. The conversation among students is continuing in the hallways and on Facebook, and has spread to a national audience.
"The media is mostly painting this as an issue of censorship," Simonson says. "But for the conversation to be productive, we have to shift it to being about how gay people are treated in society."
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