Valedictorian punished for speaking about Jesus sues district

COLORADO — A Lewis-Palmer High School student filed a federal lawsuit against administrators on Aug. 27, claiming her constitutional rights were violated when school officials made her issue an apology to community members for her graduation speech, which referred to Jesus Christ.

Citing a violation of both the Colorado Student Free Expression Law and the First Amendment, the lawsuit argues that Erica Corder”s speech at a graduation ceremony for the class of 2006 contained nothing libelous, obscene, profane, false, slanderous or likely to incite to criminal conduct, and thus school administrators had no legal right to threaten to withhold her diploma based on the content of her speech.

Each of the school’s 15 students who shared class valedictorian status gave a 30-second speech. Corder diverted from the one she submitted to administrators for review, adding several lines about Jesus Christ. She encouraged the audience to “find out more about the sacrifice He made for you so that you now have the opportunity to live in eternity with Him.”

Her lawyer, Mat Staver, points to a passage in the 1992 Supreme Court case Lee v. Weisman to suggest that Lewis-Palmer officials went too far. In Weisman, the Supreme Court ruled that a school could not bring a rabbi to speak at a graduation ceremony. But parts of the opinion suggest the Supreme Court would find certain religious moments at a public school legal.

It states that the Supreme Court recognizes “at graduation time and throughout the course of the educational process” there will be times when religious values, practices and persons will interact with public school students and that “a relentless and all-pervasive attempt to exclude religion from every aspect of public life could itself become inconsistent with the Constitution.”

Staver also cited the 1969 Supreme Court decision Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, in which the justices wrote that “in the absence of a specific showing of constitutionally valid reasons to regulate their speech, students are entitled to freedom of expression of their views.” This freedom of expression, Staver argued in correspondence with the Lewis-Palmer school board, includes the freedom to pray or offer religious messages.

The school district has 30 days to respond to the complaint. In a press release, the district said its actions were “constitutionally appropriate” and vowed to “vigorously defend the claims.” The statement continues by pointing out that “the graduation ceremony was a school-sponsored event that was subject to the direction and control of school officials” and that “Erica departed from the group performance that she and her classmates had rehearsed.”

District officials declined to comment beyond the statements in the press release.

Corder, now a sophomore at Wheaton College, a small Christian university outside of Chicago, said she knew school officials would not be happy with her speech because the “name Jesus Christ sparks a lot of controversy.” But she was surprised they reacted as harshly as they did.

She said that when the ceremony ended, a teacher escorted her to the assistant principal’s office, where he informed her that she would not receive her diploma because of the speech she made. He scheduled a meeting five days later for Corder to discuss the issue further with then-Principal Mark Brewer and her parents.

“I knew that Wheaton, as a Christian college, would probably still let me in if I explained the situation,” she said. “But I was worried that in the future, people wouldn’t say anything about their beliefs because they would be afraid of the punishments.”

Her lawyer said that Corder and her parents also were concerned that the implication that she broke school policies when she made her speech might affect her plans to pursue a career in teaching.

According to Corder’s complaint, Brewer told her at the May 30 meeting that her comments were “immature” and that she had violated the school policy. He said Corder would not receive her diploma unless she issued a public apology.

“I told him I wouldn’t apologize for what I said,” she said. “But I was okay apologizing for not asking permission and making it clear that it was my own viewpoints,” she said.

Brewer looked over the draft of Corder’s apology and told her to add following statement: “I realize that, had I asked ahead of time, I would not have been allowed to say what I did.”

The complaint argues that when Brewer told Corder to insert this statement, he violated her First Amendment rights by compelling her to use words that she didn’t believe were true. Under duress, Corder added the line to her apology, her lawyer said.

Staver, founder and chairman of the firm representing Corder, Liberty Counsel, called the school’s actions “unprecedented and shocking.”

Students in Colorado have the extra protection of their state’s free expression law, which gives all public high school students “the right to exercise freedom of speech and of the press.”

“She works for 12 years to become valedictorian, and then in 30 seconds, in a speech that is not libelous, slanderous or obscene, they threaten to withhold her diploma,” Staver said. “A diploma that she has already earned.”

In the year since the graduation speech, Corder and her parents have reached out to the school board repeatedly to try and remedy the situation, Staver said. The Corders wanted the public apology rescinded, any negative comments about their daughter’s actions removed from her file and a clarification made to school policy for future graduation speeches. They are not seeking any monetary damages, only the cost of legal fees.

“The only reason I’ve filed this lawsuit is that I want to gain more clarity on free speech so that students aren’t afraid to say what they believe in for fear of getting into trouble,” Corder said.

For More Information: 

Corder v. Lewis Palmer Sch. Dist., #38, No. 07-01798 (D. Colo. filed Aug. 27, 2007).