The St. Paul School Board’s longest-serving and only openly gay member stepped down in April after a patron at a St. Paul public library accused him of watching child pornography. Police told reporters last week that their investigation into the allegations indicated that Al Oertwig had not been viewing child pornography. The media attention to his case gave rise to wild accusations and misperceptions because Oertwig is a member of an unpopular minority: gay men.
Blogs can be a great source of information and opinion, but one drawback is that they open the door for almost anyone to say almost anything about almost anyone, even if it’s not true. In the eyes of conservatives opposed to homosexuality, Al Oertwig was seen as a pedophile who preyed on the children of St. Paul — not a trivial assertion for a man with a long history of service on the St. Paul School Board.
While police have cleared Oertwig, the reaction to the April allegations lingers to this day on some conservative Minnesota blogs. No retractions, no apologies for smearing a public servant, and not even an update that the case had turned out differently than they had alleged. Here are a few examples:
“How nice we are told to have diversity, support gay rights, tolerance, teach it to your kids etc. Well look what we got for our investment of OUR tax Monies in this venture: We get this openly gay teacher who works with kids all the time, so whats he do, he engages in Pederast (or same sex) child porn in he [sic] School library then resigns,” wrote North States Man, a conservative Minnesota blogger. “Why do we want to perform these sick social experiments on our kids again?”
And bloggers tried to tie the wild assertions of Oertwig being a pedophile to the DFL. “Have I mentioned Al is a Democrat? Did I mention that somewhere above? Well, if I didn’t, I just want to mention that Uncle Pervy Oertwig is a Democrat. Apparently one with a fondness for underage boys,” wrote conservative Minnesota blogger, David Drake. “But maybe not…I’m sure he has nothing but the very best intentions for all the students. Especially the boys between ages 12-16.”
And one man with a beef against both gay men and Oertwig himself wrote seven posts about the allegations against Oertwig, and has yet to correct his assertions by posting anything about Oertwig being cleared. Tom Swift ran as the Republican endorsed candidate for St. Paul School Board, and at one point put out a campaign flier accusing Oertwig of promoting “a homosexual agenda.”
Swift was concerned that Oertwig may have been using St. Paul School Board computers to download the records of children in the district. “What if Oertwig was not surfing the internet for kiddie porn… [W]hat if he, or anyone else has been downloading and copying the records of the district’s children?,” wrote Swift. “Can you imagine the sorts of personal information contained on those machines?”
Oertwig resigned from his position on the board and has not indicated an interest in reclaiming his seat. He also will neither confirm nor deny that he was viewing erotic imagery on a public computer. That allegation still exists and may cause voters to refrain from electing him should he decide to run again. Indeed Tom Swift found the remaining allegations enough to discount him from election. “Viewing pornography in a public library may not be a crime, but it certainly isn’t a habit I find suitable for someone who is to be trusted with children,” Swift told the Minnesota Monitor.
Oertwig did not respond to requests by the Minnesota Monitor for comment.
Do bloggers have a responsibility to retract these kind of inaccurate and, in my opinion, hateful statements or at least follow the story to its conclusion? Those statements will remain part of the world wide web for a long time to come, some as long as the web exists. A future employer, a distant family member or anyone else interested in finding out about Al Oertwig will find bloggers accusing him of illegal behavior involving children. Not to mention that his reputation is permanently ruined.