NEVADA — Avaledictorian is suing school officials for cutting her microphone when they sayshe began proselytizing during her graduation speech.
The lawsuit,filed last week on behalf of Brittany McComb by attorneys for The RutherfordInstitute, a conservative non-profit organization dedicated to the defense ofreligious freedom and civil liberties, charges that school officials’ censorship of her speech violated McComb’s First Amendmentrights.
McComb, one ofthree valedictorians at Foothill High School in Henderson, was delivering aspeech she titled ”Filling that Void” at the school’sgraduation ceremony June 15 when school officials said she deviated from thepre-approved draft.
The speech, as submitted to the district,included numerous references to God and directly quoted scripture on twooccasions.
Administrators, concerned that her speech might violatethe Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, made her remove specificreferences to Christianity. McComb agreed to do so, only to give the uneditedversion of the speech at the ceremony, which led the administrators to unplugher microphone.
McComb could not be reached forcomment.
”Inaccordance with our school district procedures, students invited to speak arerequired to submit their speeches for prior approval,” said Pat Nelson, aspokeswoman for Clark County School District. ”Divergence from the speechwill result in [the microphone] being cut off and that’s exactly whathappened.”
But the lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court ofNevada, argues the district violated its own policy, which states that if thechoice of a graduation speaker is content neutral and the district gives themprimary control over their speech, their expression does not reflect on theschool and cannot be restricted for religious or anti-religious reasons,according to the lawsuit.
John Whitehead, president of The RutherfordInstitute, said he hopes this case clarifies and expands the First Amendmentrights of students in school and during school activities.
”Ithink it’s an important case because there’s so much confusionaround the country about what can be said by students,” Whitehead said.
”This is a good case to get the courts to start defining what students cando instead of what they can’t.”
In 2003 the 9th U.S.Circuit Court of Appeals decided a similar case,Lassonde v. Pleasanton Unified SchoolDistrict, in which it said school administrators were right to censorsegments of a California student’s graduation speech that were consideredproselytizing.
In Lassonde,the court ruled that, since students are coerced to attend graduationceremonies, the audience at such events is captive. Thus, allowing preaching ingraduation speeches violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment byforcing even dissenting members of the audience toproselytization.
Bill Hoffman, the school district’s generalcounsel who personally reviewed McComb’s speech prior to the graduation,said administrators were simply following the decision of the court inLassonde.
”[Lassonde]requires us to do what we did, which is a month before review the text of thespeech to be delivered,” Hoffman said.
Whitehead said the factsin the McComb case are different from those in
Lassonde, and said the facts will makea difference.
”The visceral effect of this case is muchdifferent,” Whitehead said. ”We attached a DVD for the court to seewhat happened at that ceremony.”
Whitehead said they are nowwaiting on the district, which has 20 days torespond.