Earlier this month, over 2,000 high school journalism students gathered in a Seattle convention hall for a session they thought was on a popular web-based anti-bullying campaign. Instead, the speaker, founder of the "It Gets Better" project and sex columnist Dan Savage, used the platform on April 13 to slam the Bible and various religious groups, parade his relationship with his gay partner, and name-call over 100 students who got up and walked out in the middle of his speech.
Teachers, parents, and students have since complained about Savage's crass language and off-topic ranting at the biannual Journalism Education Association's National High School Journalism Conference.
"As a former journalist, I am generally open to other people's points of view. But when he started getting vulgar and attacking, it was clearly over the age-group appropriateness," said Rick Tuttle, a journalism teacher at Sutter High School in Northern California who brought six of his students. "Ironically he was talking about bullying, and he was bashing people."
But the convention's organizers stopped short of an apology: An email sent to members stated that while "some audience members who felt hurt by his words and tone decided to leave," others have turned it into a "teachable moment, " discussing the speech in their classrooms and writing editorial columns for their school newspapers.
"We did not have a prior transcript or outline of Savage's speech...we wish he had stayed more on target for the audience of teen journalists," wrote JEA's executive director Kelly Furnas and Logan Aimone, executive director of the National Scholastic Press Association, a joint host of the event.
Savage was chosen to speak at the conference for his work with "It Gets Better," a program meant to encourage struggling LGBT teens in their lifestyle. Savage founded the program two years ago with his partner, Terry Miller, who he married in Canada in 2005.
According to its website, "It Gets Better" has produced over 40,000 user-created videos, reaching more than 40 million viewers with contributors including President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, along with a number of well-known Hollywood stars.
Known for his lurid sex advice in the internationally syndicated column entitled "Savage Love," Savage is no stranger to controversy. He has publicly lambasted notable Republicans, Catholics, Christians, and others who oppose his viewpoints on same-sex marriage and gay rights. This month MTV started airing Savage's new show "Savage U," which follows him as he visits colleges across the nation to talk about sex-related topics with students.
He seemed to aim at an even younger audience at the JEA/NSPA conference, keeping with a similar tone.
"People often point out that... they can't help with the anti-gay bullying because it says right there in Leviticus, it says right there in Timothy, it says right there in Romans, that being gay is wrong," Savage tells the crowd in a short video posted on Tumblr by a student attendee.
"We can learn to ignore the [expletive] in the Bible about gay people the same way we have learned to ignore the [expletive] in the Bible about shellfish, about slavery, about dinner, about farming, about menstruation, about virginity, about masturbation," Savage said.
At this point, student Jenny Patterson yelled "That's bull," and walked out. As other students followed, Savage called them "pansies," she said.
Patterson said she had put up with Savage's cussing and "references to how good his husband looks in a Speedo and how he has to pry him off." But his attacks on Catholics, Mormons, and Christians for their stance on homosexuality went too far.
"I didn't come to hear someone preach to me about how wrong my beliefs are," said Patterson, 17, who came with Sutter High's Tuttle. "I don't know what the agenda was behind [Savage's] session, but it was unnecessary."