Student commencement addresses may be a thing of the past attwo high schools after controversial speeches at this year’s graduationscaused legal battles and media frenzy.
Shannon Wray, of Hollidaysburg Area High School in Pennsylvania,brought in legal assistance from the Liberty Council to convincethe administration to allow her to include religious referencesin her speech. At Whiting High School in Indiana, seniorCaitlin Mills-Groninger had her diploma replaced with a disciplinaryletter to her parents after she delivered an unapproved address.
In preparing her speech, Wray was instructed by the schoolto discuss how her past influenced her present success. Wray referredto her Christian faith as well as her family and friends whenacknowledging those who have helped her to succeed.
"It is because of Him that I have achieved and succeeded,and, no matter how much knowledge Hollidaysburg High has bestowedupon me, I would know nothing if I didn’t know Him," Wraywrote.
After the speech was read for prior review, the school’s administrationand Superintendent Paul Gallagher urged Wray to remove all Christianreferences from her speech. The officials said the religious languagemight be "offensive" to members of the audience.
"Shannon was resolved that if she were to give a speechabout the past, how she got to that point in her life, she hadto give credit to God," Wray’s lawyer, Joel Oster said. Wraycontacted the Liberty Council, a nonprofit legal-defense groupspecializing in religious freedom cases. The council was aboutto file a temporary restraining order that would prevent the schoolfrom censoring Wray when the school decided to allow the speechin its original form.
The allowance of Wray’s speech is a "great step forward,"according to Oster. "Schools across America are learningthe lesson that you cannot discriminate and censor religious speech."
Although the school allowed Wray to deliver the speech, thefuture of other graduation speakers is not secure. HollidaysburgArea High School has suggested that it may not allow student speechesat all in upcoming years.
Unlike Wray, Mills-Groninger’s original graduationspeech was approved by the administration, but she added unapprovedcommentary that resulted in disciplinary action.
Mills-Groninger delivered her original speech, which denounceddiscrimination and prejudice, but then surprised the audienceand administration with "some playful revenge." Sheread a list of 13 teachers and gave them frivolous awards, including"Trapped in the 80’s" and "Task Master."
Mills-Groninger had been advised to only read the approvedspeech and had told principal Dirk Flick that she would do so.When administrators realized that Mills-Groninger broke her promise,they replaced her diploma with a letter requesting a parentalconference.
The Mills-Groninger family was outraged by what they saw asthe school’s attempt to punish Caitlin for exercising her freedomof expression, and they refused to meet with the school. The speechwas meant as "something nice for the teachers that wouldbe memorable, something fun, no harm intended," Mills-Groningersaid.
As Indiana property law covers diplomas, the school was forcedto send it five days after the graduation ceremony.
"Our intention was to express to the parents our disappointmentthat Caitlin chose to lie to us," Superintendent Sandra Martinezsaid. "She was never at risk of not getting her diploma."
The controversy may have been settled between Mills-Groningerand the Whiting School District, but the future of speeches duringcommencement exercises is unclear.
"I have staff that are not supporting speeches next yearbecause of all of this. There will be new discussion about thistopic," Martinez said. "My feeling would be to continuewith the speeches, but you have to take into consideration whatthe principal and the staff at the high school feel needs to bedone."
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