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In Response: Don’t force hatred underground, expose it for everyone to see

I appreciated that the writer of the Nov. 20 letter, “Irresponsible to equate hate speech with free speech,” said he read my blog and that he chose to take part in an important public conversation.

His letter opened with, “I had to read to the end of the well-reported Nov. 15 article, ‘District responds to hate speech in Duluth high schools,’ to find School Board Member Harry Welty’s recommendation against ‘having a dire punishment for kids abusing their free-speech rights.’ In disbelief, I turned to Welty’s blog.”

When the News Tribune’s education reporter, Jana Hollingsworth, called me for the article, I kept her on the phone for 40 minutes as I expanded on my thoughts on this sensitive subject. Due to the newspaper’s understandable limitations of time, newsprint and ink, only two sentences of mine were included in the article to explain my still-evolving thinking on this episode.

In the meantime, I must insist on an uncomfortable truth: In the United States, free speech does include hate speech, however much we may be appalled by it. Fortunately, it does not include shouting “fire” in a dark theater, threats or anything to incite a riot.

My job as a member of the School Board is to think my way through what has been happening over the past year and how to deal with its consequences over the next four and, possibly, God forbid, eight years. Making martyrs of Duluth students for parroting the hateful things they hear on the Internet — and, no doubt, in their homes and on the nightly news — is not the best or most thoughtful response. That would be fighting fire with grease, which only would make the conflagration more intense.

Duluth has undergone two recent changes that exacerbated the negativity of the 2016 election. It divided its school district into rich-and-poor and black-and-white schools at the same time as its African-American community began to expand significantly, leading to a white flight from our schools of perhaps 15 percent of the student population.

There has been one heartening development over these recent years: Our children have assumed a generous and open attitude toward their superficial differences. The reactions of students in both East High and Denfeld have been remarkable rebukes to the politics that seem to have generated the hate speech. I take great comfort in that.

These generous reactions must be supported by the School Board, not undermined by meting out dire punishments prompted by shock at the outcome of the recent election. We need to follow our better angels.

That’s what Martin Luther King Jr. did. His legacy, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, has continued for 50 years to keep a watchful eye out for the vestiges of hate and racism that King gave his life to make part of our nation’s past. I do not believe King would have encouraged us to force it underground, but would have advised us to keep it in full view where it could be exposed for what it is: a grievous assault on the spirit of justice and equality upon which our nation was founded.

Harry Welty is an At Large member of the Duluth School Board.

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