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Catholic school paper deletes student editorials on Catholic DVD, gay teens

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Sean Simonson, Bernardo Vigil
Sean Simonson (left) and Bernardo Vigil discuss the reaction to the columns that appeared in the Benilde-St. Margaret's school newspaper. School officials removed the columns from the newspaper's website after comments on the articles grew heated.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

A student newspaper at a suburban Catholic school has sparked a debate over free speech by criticizing a Catholic DVD and defending gay teens. The DVD denouncing same-sex marriage was sent by Minnesota's Catholic bishops to parishioners prior to the Nov. 2 election. 

The student newspaper of Benilde-St. Margaret's in St. Louis Park deleted two student editorials over the weekend and shut off the online comments.

The Knight Errant student newspaper published a news story last Thursday about the bishops' "Preserving Marriage in Minnesota" DVD.

But it was the two editorials that accompanied it -- and the online comments they inspired --  that created the uproar. One staff editorial challenged the bishops' arguments against same-sex marriage and called the DVD "unsubstantiated." 

Senior Bernardo Vigil helped write the piece. 

"We did expect a little bit of a pushback from that, which there was. A lot of the comments were 'this shouldn't have been published, this is a Catholic school,'" Vigil said.   

But the op-ed that touched off the cyberstorm was editor Sean Simonson's piece, "Life as a gay teenager." 

Sean Simonson
Sean Simonson is a senior at Benilde-St. Margaret's, a Catholic school in St. Louis Park, Minn. He is also the Activities Editor for The Knight Errant, the school newspaper, and the author of an editorial about life as a gay teenager. Simonson was asked to remove his essay "Life as a gay teenager" from the newspaper's website after the comments grew heated.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

"There's so many suicides in the news. And I felt very frustrated that my voice couldn't be heard,  and that there were all these things that I see as injustices all the time that I didn't feel like anyone else was recognizing," said Simonson. 

The essay reads in part:  

"You fear looking the wrong way in the locker room and offending someone," he continued. "Politicians are allowed to debate your right to marry the person you love, or your right to be protected from hate crimes under the law. Your faith preaches your exclusion -- or damnation. And no one does anything to stop it."

After Simonson's essay ran in the Knight Errant, 93 comments poured into its website. Many of them praised Simonson for what they said was his courage. A distinct minority didn't. Some quoted theology. Some attacked Simonson. Some were anonymous. 

Benilde-St. Margaret's principal Sue Skinner called Simonson's parents a day after the piece ran, and also talked to Simonson. School administrators declined to be interviewed for this story, but Simonson said the principal wanted the newspaper to stop taking comments on the piece. Simonson disagreed. 

"The piece was sort of to create this dialogue," said Simonson. "And if we just stopped accepting comments, we destroyed the meaning of the story and so it wasn't really worth doing."

Knight Errant staff, together with their faculty advisor, agreed instead to remove the two op-eds and the comments from the website, and post this  explanation from the principal.

"While lively debate and discussion clearly has its place in a Catholic school, 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," the statement read in part. 

Dennis McGrath, a spokesman for the archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis said "We were not involved in this process, but we are supportive of the decision by school authorities."

"I think it's always regrettable when a school administrator decides that the appropriate way to handle controversy is to suppress it," said Jane Kirtley, a professor of law and media ethics at the University of Minnesota. 

Kirtley says Benilde-St. Margaret's is well within its legal rights to curtail student expression, but she says students need a safe place to debate these kinds of issues.

Vigil and Simonson say they got that chance Monday morning. Their religion classes discussed the issues raised in the editorials and clarified the Catholic Church's position on gays and lesbians. 

Benilde's president Bob Tift said in a statement that the Catholic Church teaches that "men and women with homosexual tendencies must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity."

The editors say what they regret about taking down the articles is that it appears the commentators calling for their censorship have won.

In reality, says Vigil, the discussion has simply moved. 

"As per usual, with things involving high school students, a lot of it's moved to Facebook," he said.