Corey Friedman: Speech censors begin to withdraw | Opinions
As high schools across the country resume traditional graduation ceremonies following a hiatus imposed by the coronavirus pandemic, it was only a matter of time before controversy over the speech d openness does not make the national news.
A Michigan principal wisely reversed the course after asking Elizabeth Turner, co-principal of Hillsdale High School, to omit remarks about her Christian faith in a draft speech submitted for review. When Turner steps onto the podium on June 6, his message to fellow graduates will not be censored.
Administrators dropped their request for Turner to revise the speech a day after the First Liberty Institute, a conservative Christian legal group, intervened on his behalf. A letter from First Liberty attorneys Mike Berry and Keisha Russell warned Principal Amy Goldsmith that banning religious references would violate Turner’s First Amendment rights.
In a Google Docs file, Goldsmith pointed out two paragraphs of Turner’s speech as inappropriate for a public school. The chosen part begins: “For me my future hope lies in my relationship with Christ.
A Goldsmith note added to the document indicates that the text had already been sanitized once.
“It’s better and you’ve corrected the language, but you represent the school in the speech, don’t use the podium as a public forum,” Goldsmith wrote. “We must be careful to include religious aspects. These are your strong beliefs, but they are not appropriate for a speech in a public school setting. “
Goldsmith wanted to avoid violating the establishment clause of the First Amendment, which prevents government agencies like public schools from endorsing religion. It ignored the free exercise clause, which guarantees citizens the right to practice their faith without undue interference.
Graduates selected to speak on the basis of high marks – promotion majors and Salvationatorians – or leadership roles may represent the current upper class, but an early stage speaking niche does not make them the spokesperson. from school.
“Student graduation speeches constitute private speech, not government speech, and private speech is not subject to the establishment clause,” Berry and Russell wrote in the letter from the First Liberty Institute.
They included the required case law quotes, and perhaps a high school principal could be forgiven for not keeping an eye on the state of First Amendment case law and its application to specific school functions.
But lawyers also cited a source administrators should be familiar with – a Department of Education guidance document.
Federal agency asks public schools not to restrict religious or anti-religious messages from graduation speakers as long as they write their own speeches and have been selected based on neutral criteria, such as cumulative grade point average .
Although the guide is only about a year old and first appeared online last June, it should be required reading for school officials who organize and oversee the kick-off exercises. But widespread confusion over students’ free speech and religious freedom rights persists.
Elizabeth Turner was far from the first graduation speaker to face unconstitutional censorship, and she won’t be the last.
In North Carolina, SouthWest Edgecombe High School caused a stir when it replaced the opening speech by senior class president of 2017, Marvin Wright, with another version that school officials had prepared. When Wright reached the podium, he ignored the school script and instead recited his own words.
The then manager, Craig Harris, withheld Wright’s diploma as punishment. Coverage quickly spread from local to state to national media. As criticism mounted, Harris hand delivered the diploma to Wright’s home. The principal of Edgecombe County public schools publicly apologized and suspended the principal days later.
Beginning presents unique conditions that tend to aggravate power struggles between students and administrators. To promote decorum, many schools prohibit cheering, limit opportunities for applause, and strictly control conduct during ceremonies.
Meanwhile, the graduates are testing the limits of their freedom as alumni who have completed all of their classes and no longer face the threat of a detention room.
A rite of passage marking the transition to adulthood from childhood is precisely the wrong time to take the reins. Schools should remember that graduation is for graduates.
Beginning speakers choose their words carefully, often spending endless days and sleepless nights agonizing over their scripts. They must remain free to speak for themselves.
– Corey Friedman is an opinion journalist who explores solutions to political conflicts from an independent perspective. Follow him on Twitter: @ coreywrite. Click here to read the previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.