ROARING SPRING - At a Hollidaysburg rally earlier this month, Republican U.S. Senate candidate Tom Smith said Spring Cove government teacher Philip Waite spoke "eloquently."
A day later, he called Waite's words "divisive and beyond the bounds of acceptable discourse."
Waite's 45-minute speech on executive power, given at a July 1 Blair County Tea Party rally, led to criticism from state Democrats, attention from a national news website and a handful of "hate emails."
But despite allegations that Waite compared President Barack Obama to Adolf Hitler, Spring Cove School District officials have said it's not a classroom concern.
"People do have freedom of speech in the public arena," Superintendent Robert Vadella said. "That's what we teach the kids."
Waite said his speech at the Blair County FreedomFest, held three days before Independence Day at Hollidaysburg's American Legion Memorial Park, touched on a range of topics: energy, illegal immigration and even a call to pray for Obama.
But the most talked-about portion, describing the rise and fall of Nazi Germany, stood out to some observers.
"You know what happened then," Waite had said of Hitler's consolidation of power. "All other parties were outlawed, all free elections were outlawed and 45 million dead people later, we ended that regime. Why? Because you had a slick, quick talker and someone who said, 'You don't need to worry about responsibility, we'll take good care of you. Just walk the party line and smile.' And we know how that ended up."
The Pennsylvania Democratic Party uploaded the two-and-a-half minute speech portion to YouTube. That same day, a politics reporter for The Huffington Post website wrote an article on the apparent Obama-Hitler comparison.
Fallout from the speech came quickly: A day after the online article was posted, Smith retracted his compliment, saying he hadn't paid close enough attention to Waite's words.
The article has drawn more than 1,800 reader comments from across the country, many lambasting Waite's speech and Smith's subsequent compliment. Waite maintained that the article oversimplified his words.
"I'm not saying President Obama agrees with what Adolf Hitler stood for," Waite said. "It really makes it sound extremely hateful."
With the article came angry emails, Waite said, including one from Texas that used "words you would not even say in public."
"They just ranted," Waite's wife, Julie, said. "They figured, 'Oh, it's the tea party, so we're going to bash people for being conservative.'"
An angry reader attempted to send a message to Waite's boss, Central High School Principal David Crumrine, he said. A state Democratic spokesman called the teacher's comments "shocking."
Vadella, meanwhile, sent the article to school board members in case the issue expanded.
But since then, the ripples haven't gone much further. District administrators backed Waite's right to speak, and Spring Cove teachers' union President John Fitzpatrick said there's no policy regulating what members can say in public.
"It was a political rally," Waite said. "I don't make any bones about that."
He also denies that his political and religious opinions seep into his classroom teaching.
In earlier tea party-sponsored speeches, Waite, who has taught for 16 years in the district, made comments that seemed to oppose public-school restrictions on religious teaching.
"The Bible was approved by Congress in 1782 to be used in any public school," he said in a 2010 address, part of a county tea party speakers' series.
Vadella, who's run the district for just a few weeks, said he's heard of prior classroom complaints against Waite but noted that controversy can go hand-in-hand with government classes.
"Students have to defend their positions [in Waite's classes]. Some people might have interpreted that differently," Vadella said.
Crumrine said administrators have received student complaints, but that's not unique to Waite's courses.
"There are students who raise concerns in a lot of classes about a lot of things. And all of those are investigated," he said.
Crumrine said he couldn't provide specific examples of those concerns.
"We're constantly reminding all our teachers that they need to follow the curriculum," he said.
Waite, for his part, said he encourages students to be active regardless of their political views. He's put left-leaning students in touch with Democratic campaigns, he said, and hosted a bus trip to Obama's 2009 inauguration ceremony.
Vadella said accusations of teaching bias aren't taken lightly, but as long as Waite's opinions don't cross the line into offensiveness and remain outside the classroom, there won't be repercussions.
"The public arena is a free arena," he said. "At this point, what happened this summer is not an issue here."
Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.