In 2011, a federal judge threatened high school valedictorian Angela Hildenbrand with jail time if she dared pray at her graduation. Then, in 2013, public school officials turned off valedictorian Remington Reimer’s microphone mid-sentence when he started talking about his faith during his graduation address. And, just last year, public school officials censored salutatorian Brooks Hamby’s graduation speech three different times and threatened to cut off his microphone for humbly thanking his parents and God for the gift of learning.
This year, I hope school officials offer more applause about what these high school graduates have to say and less hyperventilating over their religious speech.
Censoring, silencing, threatening with jail—are these the lessons of free speech and religious liberty that school officials want to teach graduating high school seniors? Is this how our schools should reward our most academically successful high school graduates?
These young people are the cream of the crop—literally, the top of the class! Rarely are they given to foul language, and bawdy humor is foreign to them. These are the students who were more often at desks in their rooms on a Friday night instead of at the football game—and sometimes they were at their desks in their rooms on a Friday night only after cheering their classmates on the gridiron. These are good, smart, humble kids.
For a positive change, let us enjoy the graduation speech for what it is: the time when a few students who have worked themselves into the position of success speak directly to their peers about what is on their hearts while the rest of us respectfully listen.
The problem is not with the students, but rather with misinformed school officials who are allergic to any public expression of religion in school. School officials too often forget the declaration clearly announced by the Supreme Court in its landmark decision nearly 50 years ago in Tinker v. Des Moines: “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
Schools need to remember their graduates are not government officials. The students speak for themselves, not as agents of the state. As the Supreme Court explained in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, “[T]here is a crucial difference between government speech endorsing religion, which the Establishment Clause forbids, and private speech endorsing religion, which the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses protect."
And yet, it seems that every year, school officials are only too eager to cap the red pen and unsheathe the heavy black marker of censorship when students stand behind the graduation podium.
For a positive change, let us enjoy the graduation speech for what it is: the time when a few students who have worked themselves into the position of success speak directly to their peers about what is on their hearts while the rest of us respectfully listen. Let us see the benefit of the free exchange of ideas and appreciate the wisdom of our founding fathers in protecting the private speech of our high school graduates.
In their final teaching moment, may school officials teach the class of 2015 that, as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit once put it, “Free speech, free exercise, and the ban on establishment [of religion] are quite compatible when the government remains neutral and educates the public about the reasons.”
Let the public be educated about religious free speech. And let the students speak—they’ve earned it.
Jeremy G. Dys, Esq, is Senior Counsel for Liberty Institute, the largest legal organization exclusively dedicated to defending religious freedom in America. He has represented numerous high school students in First Amendment cases.