July 14, 2006

Las Vegas graduate bets on a change of opinion(s)

Brittany McComb, this year's valedictorian at a Las Vegas-area high school, has filed a lawsuit againt Clark County school officials for shutting off her microphone when she started a part of her draft speech that the principal and other officials judged to be proselytization.

From a 2000 9th-circuit opinion, Cole v. Oroville Union High School, and a U.S. Supreme Court decision the same year, Santa Fe Independent School Dist. v. Doe, I suspect this case will be thrown out, but it will be one of those situations where where understandable reasoning results in an unfortunate result.

The relevant 2000 decision from the 9th circuit court involved two students, one selected to give a nondenominational invocation who clearly wanted to proselytize, and another selected to give a full speech who school officials inferred would give a proselytizing speech. The 9th circuit decided that the case had been mooted by the students' graduation but wrote on the merits anyway. In both situations—the invocation and the student graduation speech—the court decided that the context of a graduation conferred official recognition on whatever a student might do, and it was a reasonable use of school authority to vet the content of speeches.

I agree with the reasoning for the case of an invocation, but not with general student addresses. There is in such ceremonies one invocation, and it really does represent an official viewpoint. But there are two reasons why the "implied imprimatur" conclusion doesn't hold for graduation speeches: a ceremony is not restricted to one, and no one could possibly assume that school officials approve of everything an adolescent might say at the microphone.

First, the sole-speech assumption. If the valedictorian is going to say something controversial, a school official can either decide to censor it or to invite someone else to give a speech with a decidedly different perspective. The graduates and others in the audience might even learn something from the exchange.

Second, the silliness of the assumed benediction of a graduation speech. Typically, graduation speeches are either fluffy (recalling silly activities that the students will remember) or full of platitudes and a set of gratitudes longer than Academy-Award winners. Surely, no one can assume that a principal approves of giggling over recollections of minor pranks. And in the rarer cases when students say something unusual and provocative, one again would not assume that the principal approves of anything other than letting the chosen graduate air a set of thoughtful views.

I generally bend towards a strong wall separating church and state, but I don't see the need to sanitize graduation speeches. What censorship says to students who are entering adulthood undermines virtually everything that we're supposed to be teaching them in school. There are reasonable precautions that one can take to avoid the implicit official imprimatur of religion without censorship.

In this case, the Cole case is binding precedent, because Nevada is within the 9th-circuit jurisdiction. Surely the lawyers helping Ms. McComb know that, and so this case is either a long-shot suit or to be used for political purposes—and probably both.

(Hat tip to School Me.)

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Posted in Education policy on July 14, 2006 6:54 PM |