A San Luis Obispo High School special education teacher has resigned after controversy erupted about an anti-LGBT letter he wrote to the school's newspaper editor. Former teacher Michael Stack's letter was in response to the May issue of the high school’s newspaper, SLO Expressions, which contained three articles focusing on LGBT issues. KCBX News spoke with San Luis Obispo Tribune reporter Nick Wilson, who has been covering this story.
KCBX: Thanks so much for joining us, Nick.
WILSON: No problem, thanks for having me.
KCBX: So what was said in this letter that caused this public controversy in the community?
WILSON: In that letter, [Stack] cited a Bible passage that condemned homosexual acts. It has pretty harsh wording and language, saying that it's a sin to commit these kinds of acts and that those people who do, deserve to die.
KCBX: I'm sure a lot of people had some strong reactions to this. Can you tell me about what you heard from students on this or in the surrounding community?
WILSON: There’s been a lot of reaction, both online...and there was a protest yesterday outside of school. There's a lot of outrage over this religious opinion being expressed by a public school teacher and a lot of the students, parents and advocates for the gay community felt - I think - a little bit threatened by it. I mean, he is teaching students, including one student I talked to... this young woman is gay herself. So it puts her in an uncomfortable position. And a lot of people are speaking out against an issue of church and state.
KCBX: What was the reaction from the high school and the district?
WILSON: I think they're trying to sort through all of this as well. I think their initial reaction - and I've had conversations with their legal counsel - is that even though it's a public school and a public school teacher, since it was outside of the classroom there's a right to free speech. However, they're looking at that issue again to see if a public school teacher is allowed to essentially proselytize even if it is outside the classroom in this setting, which is part of the school's structure.
KCBX: And as of Thursday Michael Stack, the teacher, resigned. Can you tell me more about that?
WILSON: Michael Stack did not come to work, he didn't appear. And the school was concerned about him and actually tried to locate him. So they sent out two assistant principals and even went to his home and couldn't find him there and talked to a relative. They also, later that morning, they received a call from someone who issued a death threat against him. And about 1:07 p.m. in the afternoon [Stack] submitted a letter - an e-mail note - to the administration laying out his continue to believe that he was expressing his First Amendment rights and at the end of it, he told them he was resigning, because the community seems to want him to.
KCBX: What's been the reaction of his resignation?
WILSON: From what I've seen, and a lot of what I've seen has been online commentary. Some people aren't surprised by it. Some people have supported him, saying he shouldn't have to resign over an issue of personal opinion. Some people also don't feel it's appropriate for a public school teacher to be talking in the way that he was talking in that letter and that they feel he's dangerous to the high school population.
KCBX: Can you tell me, why did the students decide to publish the letter to the editor in the first place?
WILSON: Yeah, I actually had a conversation with one of them today about that. What he told me - this particular student, a newspaper staff member - was that they generally publish anything that gets submitted as a letter to the editor. Obviously, most of them are not this controversial. They're looking for a diversity of opinions and this offered a range... a different viewpoint than I think most of them agree with. But they didn't want to withhold the latter just because they didn't necessarily agree with it, so they chose to run it.
KCBX: Nick Wilson is a reporter for The San Luis Obispo Tribune. Thanks for joining us.
WILSON: Thank you very much.
Editor’s Note: In a statement issued on May 12, the school’s - and district’s - administration responded to public concerns.
“This controversy has generated significant questions about student free speech rights, employee free speech rights, the power of students to control student newspapers, and the role of religious speech. Some people have said Mr. Stack’s letter constitutes a “true threat” and thus is not protected under the First Amendment. However, to be a “true threat”, the speech must be reasonably foreseeable as a serious expression of intent to harm or assault. There is no evidence for this claim. Mr. Stack’s call to action is to have students turn from their ways and he prays for them,” said SLO High School principal Leslie O’Connor and SLCUSD Superintendent Eric Prater.
“There is also disagreement over whether the teacher’s speech is “hate” speech that requires the District to discipline him. On one hand, you could argue the teacher is engaging with the newspaper in a debate over values. On the other, the teacher’s statements may be interpreted to be a request of students to change an immutable characteristic such that it constitutes sexual orientation discrimination, which is prohibited in California. Here, we did not need to reach a final conclusion on this question due to his resignation.”