Speech: Hateful or Free?
“Lots of us are waiting for the day when all this homo bullshit is reversed and assholes like you are either back in the closet or hanging on lamp posts.”
That’s just one of the dozens of hateful messages that have recently filled the electronic mailbox of Kristopher Franks, a German-language teacher at Western Hills High School, a Fulbright Scholar, and a man who also happens to be gay. The e-mails, many using the pejorative terms “faggot” or “fag,” call for everything from his firing to the threatening words quoted above. Most of the writers identify themselves as Christians.
And those are just the missives going to Franks’ school e-mail, the address of which was published on conservative web sites along with contact information for a company Franks owns with his mother. The district has received more than 5,000 other e-mails about the case, mostly negative, Franks said. They are chilling reminders of other cases of hateful internet traffic targeting gays, especially young teens, who in some cases have been driven to commit suicide..
Franks’ sin? He wrote an infraction against one of his students for what he considered to be a gay-bashing remark. The 14-year-old freshman was subsequently given a two-day in-house suspension by Assistant Principal Jill Thomason and Principal James Wellman. After the student’s mother complained and threatened a lawsuit, the suspension was lifted and his record cleared.
Nearly as upsetting to Franks, who has taught in Fort Worth schools for six years, is what he says is an almost complete misreporting of what happened in his class that day and for weeks beforehand.
The student’s actual words — “I’m a Christian and homosexuality is wrong” — have been reported correctly, the teacher said. But he said he took those words as hate speech because of a campaign of gay-related slurs that had been mouthed by that student and others for weeks.
Mat Staver, an attorney for the student, has threatened to sue Franks for violating the student’s free speech rights. “Right now we are pleased with the district’s response, dropping the suspension and taking it off of his record,” Staver said in a call from his Orlando office.
Staver is with Liberty Counsel, a nonprofit litigation group that, according to its web site, is dedicated to “advancing religious freedom, the sanctity of life, and the family.” Staver said the group will be monitoring Franks’ class for further free-speech violations or any use of his class as a “bully pulpit for his homosexual agenda.”
Franks “can’t deny what happened,” the attorney said. “His suspension of [the student] for expressing an opinion is a clearly outrageous act.” However, it was not Franks who made the decision to suspend the student. Teachers cannot assess such punishments.
Despite the uproar, Franks said he feels reassured by the district’s actions in the case. Franks was put on administrative leave with pay while Acting Superintendent Walter Dansby conducted an investigation. Last Thursday (Sept. 29), he was cleared by Dansby of any wrongdoing and returned to class the next day.
“It was heartwarming,” he said. “I was welcomed warmly by my students.” Still, he said, because of the e-mail threats, security at the school has been increased.
A larger question is whether the incident might have been handled differently from the beginning, had the district begun systematic enforcement of its expanded anti-bullying policy.
That new policy, passed by the school board during the summer, extended existing protections against hate-speech and bullying to those attacked because of their sexual orientation.
Gay rights activists such as Marvin Vann have said the policy is the most progressive in the United States. Vann, an English teacher in the Fort Worth district, is the educator-liaison for a newly formed organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students called LGBTQ S.A.V.E.S.
Sharon Herrera, the district’s former diversity and sexual harassment trainer, said procedures to enforce the policy have not been finalized, and administrators and teachers have not been trained to know how to recognize true “hate speech” or bullying when it occurs, and when and how to punish for it.
In the meantime, the story has taken on a life of its own, becoming a rallying point for the religious right, with news organizations from Fox Radio to the Drudge Report weighing in. Many internet sites use coverage by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and local TV stations, Fox 4 and NBC as their sources.
Franks said the version of the story that has been picked up is “dead wrong.” The only news outlet that got it right from the beginning, he said, was the Dallas Voice, a newspaper focusing on issues of interest to the LGBT community.
The teacher said that the student’s words were the culmination of a series of gay-bashing incidents that began last year and continued for several weeks this school year in his German class. This year, he said, the incidents have been instigated by four male freshmen, including the student who got the infraction.
“I have never discussed being gay with my students,” Franks said. “It was not something they needed to know.” He also said that reports in the media that he had “frequently pushed a homosexual agenda” were lies.
“I teach German and occasionally a sociology class,” he said. “I have never brought the subject up, but these four boys often do.”
This year’s harassment began, Franks said, after he posted a photograph showing two men kissing. He placed the photo, from a German magazine, on what he calls his “world wall” — a collage from various international news outlets. Soon after it was posted, the picture was torn down and ripped in two, he said, during the period when the student and his friends were in Franks’ class.
“It was innocuous, simply part of a collage of pictures showing various social issues currently in the news,” the teacher said.
Franks said that some of his sociology students, upset that the picture had been torn down, replaced it with a hand drawing of men kissing. That picture was subsequently covered with notebook paper bearing the biblical text describing sex between two men as an “abomination.”
Last year, Franks’ car was vandalized in the school parking lot, he said, with vile words written across the doors and top in ink. He found an unsigned note on his desk calling him a “fag.”
Several troubling incidents happened the day before he sent the student to the principal’s office. Students had used the word “faggot” repeatedly in his class and made remarks about gays going to hell, Franks said.
Many reports say that on the day in question, the “subject of homosexuality” came up. The class topic that day, according to these reports was “religious beliefs in Germany.” One student reportedly asked what Germans thought about homosexuality. Another is reported to have asked how to translate “lesbian” into German. At that point the student who was later punished said he simply told another student that he was a Christian and that he believed that homosexuality was wrong. It was then that Franks is alleged to have “overheard him,” written the infraction, and sent him to the principal’s office.
In fact, “Religion in Germany was not the class topic; no student asked about homosexuality in Germany, [and] no student asked how to translate ‘lesbian’ into German,” Franks said, his voice rising with incredulity. “None of those statements are true.”
The only thing remotely like a discussion of religion, he said, was a question for a student about how he could find an
English-language Bible if he was in Germany. Franks told him he could contact someone with his religious group and they would be able to get him one.
“Then, out of the blue,” he said, the student in question “spoke up in a loud voice, looking straight at me, and said, from all the class to hear, ‘I’m a Christian and homosexuality is wrong.’
“Since there was no discussion of homosexuality, I found the statement to be disruptive to the class and offensive to any gay student who might be in my class,” Franks said.
Franks, too, has retained an attorney. to “check out my options going forward,” he said. “I was lied about and my reputation has been damaged.”
However, he had only praise for Dansby’s speedy handling of the case. “I was treated with extreme care and dignity,” he said. “This district seems committed to do the right thing.”
Herrera also praised Dansby. The acting superintendent, she said, “is coming through on his promise of an “open-door policy for employees as well as students.”
She said the training and procedures for enforcing the expanded anti-bullying policy are the responsibility of Assistant Superintendent Sylvia Reyna, who did not respond to Fort Worth Weekly’s requests for comment.
Reyna promised leaders of the LGBT community here, including Fort Worth City Council member Joel Burns and schools trustee Vasquez, both openly gay elected officials, that she would implement the training, using resources from the Dallas Human Rights Commission and other groups.
The lack of such training, Herrera said, is a problem. In Franks’ case, “With proper training, counseling and common sense, this could have been resolved in the principal’s office,” she said.