Teen Spotlight: Student-produced podcast prompts criticism, free speech questions

Students, administrators respond to video that hurt, upset school’s LGBTQ+ community

Jenny Ellis
Special to the Snowmass Sun
Jenny Ellis is a senior at Aspen High School and editor-in-chief for the Skier Scribbler school newspaper. This is her third year with the paper.
Courtesy photo

A “Firestarters for Jesus” podcast produced by several Aspen High School students has prompted criticism from the LGBTQ+ community and questions about the balance between free speech and support for those who were hurt by the video.

This podcast, which produces religion-based content on most social media platforms like YouTube, Instagram, Spotify and TikTok, came under fire for posting a video called “Is being GAY OK? Our first Guest!” Although this video was officially published to YouTube on July 6, it began circulating at Aspen High School a few weeks into the fall semester.

The teen hosts addressed an anonymous comment asking how to assist their close friend in combating homosexual desires. In response, some of the hosts suggested that homosexuality was a sin and that same-sex desires were an idea that Satan places in one’s head. The hosts decried the desires but still encouraged love for people feeling those desires with what one podcast participant described as a “love the person, hate the sin” approach.

In a statement on Oct. 22, the Firestarters for Jesus podcast team said that their intentions were not malicious. Rather, the episode was an expression of their perception of the Bible’s stance on homosexuality.

“Our vision and goal is to share the truth about Jesus and his teachings, and we use the Bible to accomplish this. Our intention was not to harm anyone or make anyone upset, rather to continue spreading the love of Christ,” the statement reads. “Although, in that episode, we were focusing on specific sins, this does not mean that any of us feel we are perfect. Everyone is flawed, including us, we sin every day but we find forgiveness through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

Despite the intent, members of the school’s LQBTQ+ community and its allies say that the way the podcasters spoke about homosexuality was still hurtful.

“It was very upsetting,” said Nadia Debska, an Aspen High School senior who identifies as lesbian. “It was disheartening to listen to what the students were saying and, to be frank, very frustrating. … I would like our school to progress to a place of support towards anyone struggling with who they are.”

Though Debska said she feels comfortable expressing her sexuality, she recognized that not everyone in the LGBTQ+ community feels the same way — making a supportive environment all the more valuable for those students.

Debska believes the school should have a zero-tolerance policy for harmful actions of any kind. She said she felt that the school’s tolerance of videos like the podcast episode contributed to “an unsafe and unsupportive environment.”

So was the podcast a violation of school conduct standards? Technically not. Although it hurt and offended some viewers, the podcast was the work of individuals outside of school who wanted to voice their opinions. The Aspen School District student handbook has extensive policies for student conduct on campus and at school-sanctioned activities, but the video was a non-curricular clip that wasn’t distributed on school grounds.

“We have to protect all students’ right to freedom of speech, the constitution is quite clear on this,” said Aspen High School Principal Sarah Strassburger. “There are limitations, however, when it is at school: The key words are school grounds and school-sponsored. A podcast filmed and posted over the summer does not qualify under this policy.”

As a result, no administrative punishment was handed down. Strassburger said she believed that a meeting with both the students who produced the podcast and the students who were hurt by it was beneficial. Yet, this did not diminish the strong feelings among other students and sparked a discussion of whether the language used in the podcast and the ideas expressed by its hosts were protected by religious freedoms.

Most speech that could have the potential to be considered harmful is protected under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment. And in this case, the podcast content can only be considered an example of students exercising their right to free speech.

In a legal sense, although what the students did was perfectly fine, it does not mean their actions did not have consequences for viewers who were hurt by the content. In the wake of this event, many students at the high school have rallied around the LGBTQ+ community, showing their support by wearing prideful clothing, standing up against those who have spread hurtful ideas and sharing their own opinions on love through social media.

Aspen High School senior Elijah Goldman said he felt the school’s response was “inadequate.” In turn, he was vocal about his support for students who were hurt by the podcast; he believes that when there are injustices within a community that are not being dealt with, it is important to take action and uplift others.

“I found it important to speak out in support of the LGBTQ+ community on social media after the podcast because many people are affected and harmed by homophobia. … The protection of LGBTQ youth needs to be a priority,” Goldman said.

Jenny Ellis is a senior at Aspen High School and editor-in-chief for the Skier Scribbler school newspaper. This is her third year with the paper.


Yes, your friends and family are part of Aspen’s tourism’s woes

Establishing an understanding of Aspen residents’ own contribution to tourism woes was a significant takeaway from the Aspen Chamber Resort Association’s Annual Tourism Outlook on Tuesday at the Lauder Seminar Room of the Koch Building on the Aspen Institute campus.

See more