10/23/2014 05:34 pm ET Updated Dec 23, 2014

Free Speech: A Happy Ending

Intellectual freedom controversies don't always have happy endings. A happy ending for some may be an unhappy ending for others.

But here's a case with a happy ending for everyone.

In 2013, the Nebraska School Activities Association (NSAA), which coordinates athletic and other competitions among Nebraska high schools, adopted a new "Content Standards Compliance Form" for speech and drama competitions. Even the title upset me. The Board of Directors of the Academic Freedom Coalition of Nebraska (AFCON) was equally upset.

Where did this form come from? When I brought it to the attention of former AFCON President Doug Paterson, professor of theatre at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, he replied "Egad. It reads almost word for word what was read to us in 9th grade players in 1959." He hypothesized that it was found in a discarded mimeograph machine from the 1950s.

Among the winners of the March 2014 speech competition was Michael Barth, a student at Gordon-Rushville High School, who presented a poetic recitation concerning gender expectations and identities. Winners were invited to present their work on Nebraska Educational Television.

But Rhonda Blanford-Green, Executive Director of the NSAA, had recently experienced the backlash to an unsuccessful effort to protect transgender students. Concerned about potential reactions, she asked Sandi Muirhead, Michael's coach, if he could present a different speech.

Deeming this unreasonable, Michael decided, with the strong support of his coach and school, to go ahead with his planned speech, uncertain whether he would be permitted to do so. There was a brief Facebook and media frenzy, leading to a statement by Blanford-Green that Michael was free to present his chosen speech, which he did.

Meanwhile, NSAA received a letter from ACLU Nebraska Legal Director Amy Miller questioning the constitutionality of NSAA's policy. In the course of further discussion, she suggested that AFCON could help craft a policy that better respected intellectual freedom.

As President of AFCON, I had a very pleasant meeting in May with NSAA Executive Director Rhonda Blanford-Green and Associate Director Deb Velder, who were happy to work with AFCON in revising their policy. They subsequently attended the July meeting of the AFCON Board for further discussion.

It turned out that the Content Standards Compliance Form was devised after looking at models from other states and the language was ultimately taken from Texas. So Doug Paterson's hypothesis that it came from the 1950s was not quite correct, but arguably close. I gave him partial credit.

After several rounds of revision, the form formerly known as the Content Standards Compliance Form is now simply a Speech Review Form. Among other changes, a mandate that the school administration ensure that "the speech does not offend the moral standards of the community" has been replaced by a standard of consistency with "the educational mission of the school."

What made it possible to reach consensus was that there was no fundamental disagreement. NSAA supports intellectual freedom in school activities, though of course insisting on the application of proper academic standards. AFCON supports academic standards, though of course insisting on intellectual freedom.

The previous form concluded:

It is understood that a speech is subject to penalties through the judging process, if material is deemed inappropriate for high school performance.

The revised form concludes:

Nothing in these standards is intended to permit or encourage censorship on the basis of topic or viewpoint. The NSAA supports academic standards and academic freedom.

Everyone was so pleased with this result that AFCON decided to make the resolution of this issue the focus of its annual meeting and NSAA offered its Lincoln facility free of charge as the venue. The meeting, on October 9, featured an informative discussion about how consensus was reached in the aftermath of controversy and an academic freedom award recognizing Michael Barth for defending and presenting his speech.

Michael, now a first-semester student at the University of Nebraska−Lincoln's Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film, could not be present to accept the award because he had already been cast in a play opening that very day in Lincoln. Meanwhile at Gordon-Rushville, in a school of under 200 students over 300 miles away in northwestern Nebraska, Sandi Muirhead's speech team is thriving.

So it was a happy ending for Michael, AFCON, NSAA, speech coaches, student contestants, academic freedom and the First Amendment. What could be better than that?