March 19, 2017

Student Decries Leadership Organization for Shutting Down Jesse Lee Peterson’s Speech to Appease Disrespectful Crowd

A letter from a student in Junior State of America (JSA), the nonpartisan organization for high schoolers that invited Jesse to speak for an hour — but escorted him out early and demanded he leave the premises after angry outbursts by students and officials. 

(Read Jesse’s article & watch video from February, “Angry Liberals Can’t Handle Truth, Shut Down My Speech.”)


Subject: JSA's Intolerance of Reverend Jesse Lee Peterson's Speech at Winter Congress

Date: March 19, 2017

To: Ken White (JSA Chief Executive Officer), Yvonne England (Program Director - Southern California)

CC: Jesse Lee Peterson


Dear Officials of JSA,

I am a senior … and an avid member of the Junior State of America.  I have been involved in JSA since my freshman year of high school… I have attended 13 overnight conventions, several one-days, have been the main speaker at countless debates…. I fell in love with the organization that promoted a diversity of beliefs.  JSA, to me, was an open platform, on which everyone could freely stand to express his or her opinion in the form of an argument regarding a variety of social, political, and economic topics. At the same time, others who disagreed could respectfully rebut the argument, expressing their own contrasting beliefs.  JSA was an environment that united people with disparate beliefs and promoted the beliefs of each person equally, empowering adolescents to fearlessly voice their opinions, but also teaching them to offer a listening ear and to respect the differing opinions of others—I fell in love with JSA for these reasons.  It was not until my 13th convention at the recent Winter Congress Conference that I regrettably realized JSA had changed, and not for the better.

It broke my heart to realize that the organization that once epitomized the power to speak, the ability to listen, and the courtesy to respect had changed into a place that shut down a voice, refused to listen, and showed utter disrespect.  I noticed this unfortunate change when I witnessed how the Junior State of America treated Reverend Jesse Lee Peterson, the keynote speaker at Winter Congress.  I was appalled, dismayed, and completely astonished by JSA’s treatment of the speaker.

Reverend Jesse Lee Peterson was asked to speak at the Conference on behalf of JSA as the second keynote speaker.  The first keynote speaker… made statements that were in contrast to the views of some members of the audience; however, at no point in time did anyone in the audience disrespect him.  Students gave him their undivided attention and applauded him for coming.… Reverend Peterson walked onto the stage and was applauded.  Shortly into his speech, however, the Reverend was booed.  Delegates and teacher advisers rolled their eyes and threw their hands into the air with frustration.  Reverend Peterson expressed his power to speak, supported by JSA… yet faced immense backlash from the Junior State.  Students and advisers began loudly talking, refusing to listen to the speaker.  Delegates and advisers showed the Reverend a lack of respect, as many people began to grow angry and stormed out of the room.  JSA Officials did not intervene and did not make attempts to terminate the disrespectful behavior of delegates and advisers.  Only a few minutes into his speech, Governor Justin Wittekind kindly asked delegates to “respect the speaker,” a phrase that JSA emphasizes throughout debates—this phrase was not upheld when the Reverend was speaking.  A delegate began furiously yelling and attempted to walk onto the stage with his finger pointed directly at the Reverend in a menacing way.  JSA’s Director of Operations had to quickly step in and use his body as a physical barrier to impede the angry student from walking onto the stage.  About half of the students walked out of the room, a scene which I have never witnessed at a JSA conference and would typically not be tolerated.  Numerous advisers also left the room and complained.  After only a few minutes of being on stage, the speaker whom JSA invited was forced by JSA Officials to leave because the statements he made were deemed unpopular by delegates and advisers.  The Reverend was physically patted by JSA Officials and repeatedly told to leave.  He responded with the same shock that I did when learning that the officials of the organization that invited him to speak were forcing him to leave, but he handled the situation with grace and poise.

On the agenda for the Conference, JSA stated that it had the “honor of introducing” the Reverend as the keynote speaker and asked that delegates would “please direct [their] respect and attention” to him.  This request was not met, as illustrated by the way the Opening Session played out. Simply because Reverend Peterson made statements with which some members of JSA disagreed, delegates and advisers together yelled at him, booed him, and held up signs saying things, such as “triggered,” in protest.  The same speaker who JSA was so “[honored]” to introduce was coerced by JSA Officials to leave the stage immediately. 

The message JSA conveyed in doing so was one that is contrary to the fundamental principles of the organization, which support expressing one’s voice, listening to the other side of the argument, and respecting the opponency. These intrinsic tenets were left deserted, and I was left ashamed to be a part of an organization that shut down someone’s voice, refused to listen, and disrespected what the other side had to say—this was a feeling I had never before felt in JSA.  The organization that once fostered diverse opinions and cultivated new thoughts through polite debates now possessed an unequivocal intolerance for diverse ideas and eliminated new thoughts.

What kind of example did JSA set for young, impressionable minds in doing so? JSA empowered students to shut down the voice of the opponency. JSA conveyed that the courtesy to listen should only be extended when the message is pleasant and agreeable to the ear. JSA condoned students to be disrespectful and leave when they hear something they disagree with.  The Officials of JSA hindered the speaker’s freedom of speech and prevented him from freely expressing his beliefs solely because some members of the audience disagreed with him.  The other members of the audience who did agree with him felt afraid and intimidated—fear was instilled in the students by JSA Officials. The students learned that if they disagreed with majority, they would be subject to censorship and the threat of violence.

After Reverend Peterson’s Q&A was cut short by JSA Officials and he was forced to leave, I went outside with the students for a different reason than others.  While many other students ran outside in a furious attempt to give the Reverend a piece of their mind, I went in an attempt to extend JSA’s hospitality and courtesy to him, to show him what JSA really is about, or at least, what it used to be about.

I introduced myself to the Reverend in the hallway while countless other students circled around us.  I apologized to him on behalf of the JSA for the disrespect it showed him.  I thanked him for taking time out of his day to come speak to us.  I told him I appreciated his honesty, in spite of the negative backlash he received.  I wanted to continue speaking to him, but when I turned around, I noticed a mob of students had encircled us, and it was difficult to get out.  The same furious student who attempted to get on stage was angrily tapping the Reverend on the shoulder and began speaking to him with disdain and condescension.  I no longer had a chance to finish my conversation with the Reverend, as other students jumped in to speak with him.  I grew uneasy in the middle of a crowd of enraged teenagers, so I managed to squeeze my way out of the crowd, returning to Opening Session with a heavy heart and a crushed spirit.

I felt as though it was my responsibility and duty … to express my feelings to you in order to enact change within the Junior State of America.  I believe JSA needs to remain true to its foundational principles, which support expressing one’s voice, listening to the other side of the argument, and respecting the opponency in order to foster open-minded and tolerant delegates who are willing to surround themselves with diverse beliefs, which may be contrary to their own.  It is with an eager mind and a hopeful spirit that I write this letter to you, because I still have faith in JSA, in spite of its recent shortcomings.  I believe JSA has the potential to return to its true purpose of serving as a place that garners contrasting opinions, which are united in the similar values of expressing the power to speak, showing the ability to listen, and extending the courtesy to respect.

(Read Jesse’s article & watch video from February, “Angry Liberals Can’t Handle Truth, Shut Down My Speech.”

Also read Jesse’s book The Antidote: Healing America from the Poison of Hate, Blame and Victimhood to understand the anger of the youth and adults who shut down Jesse’s speech. 

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