Some of you may have seen the story of a Las Vegas high school cutting off a speech by the school’s valedictorian because she deviated from the approved script and began talking about her faith in God. And this is one case where I’m going to part ways with the ACLU; the school was wrong, both in cutting off the speech and in attempting to censor it in the first place. The school and the ACLU are both arguing that because the graduation is a school-sponsored event, the valedictorian’s speech amounts to school-sponsored speech:
Officials and a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union said Friday that administrators followed federal law when they cut the microphone on Foothill High School valedictorian Brittany McComb as she began deviating from a preapproved speech and reading from a version that mentioned God and contained biblical references.
“There should be no controversy here,” ACLU lawyer Allen Lichtenstein said. “It’s important for people to understand that a student was given a school-sponsored forum by a school and therefore, in essence, it was a school-sponsored speech.”
Administrators who vetted an early draft of McComb’s speech cut six references to God or Christ, and omitted two biblical references. They also deleted a detailed reference to the crucifixion of Christ.
I disagree. This is not a case where the school has deliberately arranged for a minister to lead the audience in prayer, nor is it a case where a school official is using their position to proselytize others for their religion. Each year, the valedictorian of the class gets to speak at the graduation ceremony, as many schools allow. What that student chooses to speak about is up to them. The government should not tell them what they can’t say anymore than it should tell them what they must say.
The valedictorian has earned, through their hard work, their opportunity to speak. Most of them will take that opportunity to review their time in school, talk about the future and their hopes for it, and to thank parents, teachers and others who have helped them achieve their goals. And in some cases, that student is going to strongly believe that their achievements were aided by God, and they have every right to say so because they are speaking for themselves, not for the school.
The folly of suggesting that her speech is the same as government speech should be shown merely be reference to the fact that the speaker one year may thank Jesus, the next year the speaker might thank Allah, and the next year the speaker might be an atheist who says, “We can achieve the most by not spending our time worrying about some mythical afterlife, but by focusing on how to make this world a better place.” Surely the government isn’t endorsing all three conflicting statements? Of course not. They are endorsing none of them, as each speech’s content reflects the thoughts of the student, not school officials.
Indeed, I would argue that the school’s policy presents a much bigger first amendment problem than it pretends to solve. As the article says, the policy requires that government officials decide what is and isn’t allowed based on very vague and subjective criteria:
The Clark County School District free speech regulations prohibit district officials from organizing a prayer at graduation or selecting speakers for such events in a manner that favors religious speech or a prayer.
The policy does allow for religious expression at school ceremonies and says speakers chosen “on the basis of genuinely neutral, evenhanded criteria” are responsible for the content of their expression and “it may not be restricted because of its religious (or anti-religious) content.”
District lawyer Bill Hoffman said the regulation allows students to talk about religion, but speeches can’t cross into the realm of preaching.
“We encourage people to talk about religion and the impact on their lives. But when that discussion crosses over to become proselytizing, then we to tell students they can’t do that,” Hoffman said.
Unless someone can come up with some objective standard by which to determine when someone is merely “talking about the impact of religion on their life” and when they are “preaching”, this is precisely the sort of vague rule that the courts strike down every day. It’s also prior restraint that causes the very problem it ostensibly tries to fight – if the school does tell the student what they can and can’t say, then it is government endorsement of the content of their speech. And that means any references to religion, pre-approved by school officials, should be gone. The solution is for the school to stay out of it entirely. The student earns the right to speak at the graduation; let them speak their mind, not the minds of government officials.