A Lynch Mob Strategy

by Dan Quinn

Lynch mobs don’t care about facts. And lynch mobs made up of politicians and pressure groups really, really don’t care about facts. What they care about is manufacturing rage to advance political agendas. And that brings us to the story of a gay teacher and one of his students in a Fort Worth high school.

Last week a Fort Worth mother charged that her 14-year-old son had been sent to the principal’s office and assigned to in-school suspension for simply telling a classmate that he’s a Christian and that “being a homosexual is wrong.” According to a Fox News story, the mother asked for help from Liberty Counsel,  a right-wing litigation group the Southern Poverty Law Center says focuses heavily on anti-gay activism.

The Fox story repeats claims that the student’s comment came when a discussion in German language class somehow shifted to religion and homosexuality in Germany. The student said his side comment to a classmate got him in trouble with the teacher:

“It wasn’t directed to anyone except my friend who was sitting behind me. I guess [the teacher] heard me. He started yelling. He told me he was going to write me an infraction and send me to the office.”

Matt Krause, the Liberty Counsel attorney helping the student and his mother, protested the suspension (a punishment that the principal reversed). The student “should never have been suspended for exercising his constitutional rights,” Krause said.

Liberty Institute, the Plano-based Texas affiliate of Focus on the Family, also weighed in. The group’s director of litigation, Hiram Sasser, claimed the student was simply exercising his First Amendment rights: “All the kid did is leaned over and said that that kind of lifestyle was against the Bible.”

David Barton, head of Texas-based WallBuilders (which argues against separation of church and state), got in on the act, pushing the story on his Twitter account: “Texas Boy Punishes Student for Opposing Homosexuality.”

And, predictably, notorious anti-gay hater Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association rejoiced when the school district  suspended the student’s teacher with pay while it investigated the incident: “Great news: teacher who got student suspended for biblical view of homosexuality has been suspended by school. You agree?”

But is this really a case of a public school trying to silence a student’s free speech? Or is it, rather, a textbook case of a lynch-mob strategy in which far-right groups manufacture a controversy to inflame passions and promote a political agenda?

An attorney advised the teacher, who is gay, not to comment publicly about the incident during the investigation. Moreover, the school district won’t discuss specifics of the case because it’s a personnel matter. For a while that essentially created a vacuum, which was quickly filled by political groups backing the student’s version of what happened.

But the Dallas Voice has talked to the teacher’s friends, who provided a significantly different version. They say the teacher had been targeted by anti-gay harassment over the past two years and that the student and his friends had also made derogatory and harassing comments. On the day of the incident, the teacher’s friends say, the student inserted the topic of homosexuality into a classroom discussion of the German word for “Christian.” They say the student looked directly at the teacher and said loudly that he was a Christian and believed homosexuality is wrong. (One news report says the discipline referral form filled out by the teacher notes that the student said “no gays allowed in Christianity.”) The teacher told the student that his comment was inappropriate to the discussion and sent him to the principal’s office.

What really happened? Was a disrespectful student punished for intentionally insulting his teacher and disrupting a class in a discussion unrelated to homosexuality? Or did the teacher seek to punish a student for simply expressing his religious beliefs in a classroom discussion about homosexuality?

We don’t yet have a full answer to those questions, but the school district now says the incident has been investigated and resolved. The teacher, who was to return to work today, told the Dallas Voice that the district says investigators found claims that he acted inappropriately were unfounded and that he had the option of returning to teach at his current school or transferring to another.

But here’s another important question: why did right-wing groups rush to accept and publicize, before the investigation, the story of a 14-year-old student over that of his teacher? Those groups could have waited for the facts to come out, but they didn’t. Why not? Is it because they saw an opportunity to claim, once again, that a supposedly God-hating public school district was violating a student’s constitutional rights to free speech and religion? Whether the charge was true or not is almost incidental — once the allegation was made, it was guaranteed to be broadcast widely throughout the right-wing echo chamber. And that kind of lynch-mob strategy sure can help extremist pressure groups like Liberty Counsel, Liberty Institute and the American Family Association raise money from stirred-up, angry donors.

It can also help bring attention and money to candidates for political office. In a final twist to this story, it turns out  the Liberty Counsel attorney helping the student and his mother is an aspiring political candidate. Matt Krause lost his challenge to state Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, in the Republican primary last year. And his Facebook page suggests that Krause — “Christian, Husband, Father, Conservative, and Republican” — is seeking election in 2012 to a different state House seat. What better way for a right-winger to get attention than by suggesting that one of those evil homosexuals is out to silence the religious speech of his public school students?

After all, someone else can worry about the facts of the case. Right?