After being prompted by students to talk about the State of the Union address given by U.S. President George W. Bush the previous evening, Bennish suggested that Bush's tone was "eerily similar" to that of Adolf Hitler's speeches (in that both were very ethnocentric), and that capitalism was "at odds with human rights".
Bennish also posed the question, "Who is probably the single most violent nation on planet Earth?", concurring with a student's response, "We are". He encouraged students to consider how other nations might see the United States and its allies, suggesting that "to many Native Americans flag is no different from the Nazi flag," and that Palestinians see the Israelis as "the real terrorists". Speaking about the U.S. "war on drugs" in Colombia, he made a reductio ad absurdum argument suggesting that other countries might have reason to drop chemicals on U.S. tobacco fields "to destroy the tobacco plants that are killing millions and millions of people in their countries every year, and causing them billions of dollars in healthcare costs".
The recording ends with Bennish saying, "I'm not in any way implying that you should agree with me. I don't know if I'm even necessarily taking a position. But what I'm trying to get you to do is to think about these issues more in-depth, and not just to take things from the surface. I'm glad you asked all of your questions, 'cause they're all very good, legitimate questions, and hopefully that'll allow other people to think about those things, too."
Students protest Bennish's suspension.
The recording was offered to a radio station (850 KOA) in Denver and to Virginia-based economist Walter E. Williams, who discussed it in his syndicated column. Other blogs picked up the story, and eventually Fox News and major newspapers covered the story. On Fox, Alan Colmes reported that "students walked out of classes after an audio tape was made public of Bennish ranting." In reality, the students were protesting in support of Bennish and against his suspension, and it was an MP3 recording, not a tape.
As the controversy attracted national attention, Bennish was invited to appear on the NBC Today Show in New York City. In the interview with host Matt Lauer broadcasted on March 7, 2006, Bennish maintained that his lecture had been taken out of context and that he had expressed opposing viewpoints later on during the class, which Allen had not recorded.
Some journalists, blogwriters, and radio listeners chided Bennish for "indoctrinating" students rather than teaching geography. While the course syllabus reveals an intent to encourage critical thinking about "religion, human rights, notions of development and underdevelopment..." what some found offensive was that Bennish's commentary appeared to be outside of that context. Some believed his stated views to be anti-American.
Bennish argued he was only trying to give a different viewpoint.
In the recorded discussion Bennish made statements which were inaccurate as phrased:
Bennish being interviewed by various reporters.
Bennish was placed on administrative leave by the Cherry Creek School District, whose policy requires teachers to present varying viewpoints when tackling controversial subjects. Bennish hired ACLU lawyer David Lane to represent him, and Lane contended that Bennish's First Amendment right to freedom of speech was being jeopardized. Some legal scholars contend that the First Amendment is not protected in a high school setting. When asked in an interview with host Peter Boyles on the Denver radio station KHOW to explain his personal views, Bennish declined and he would not comment on his party affiliation. He also declined an interview with KOA talk radio host Mike Rosen, although Lane encouraged such a dialogue.
Bennish's father, who lives in Bennish's hometown of Beverly Hills, Michigan, revealed to the media that he had received at least a dozen death threats. Bennish himself and Allen also received threats, but no party involved was attacked as a result of the controversy.
On March 10, 2006, the Cherry Creek School District announced that it would reinstate Bennish; he returned to Overland the following Monday. Cherry Creek Schools Superintendent Monte Moses said that "Bennish doesn't deserve to be praised, nor does he deserve to be fired" and that "Jay Bennish has promise as a teacher, but his practice and deportment need growth and refinement."
Bennish's lawyer said that the teacher would alter his style, "giving both sides more contemporaneously. When he gives the yin, give the yang right then and there — don't wait a day, don't wait an hour, don't wait a week. Put it all out at the same time."
Upon returning to the classroom, Bennish conducted a discussion on the controversy and explained the nature of his future classes, which would focus less on classroom discussion and more on textbook-based assignments. Students lamented the change; Leia Schiavone commented: "It's a lot more fun to learn from Mr. Bennish from his lectures than from the textbook. The textbook doesn't have everything that's going on in the world. We're not going to be learning as much."