Appellate court: School did not violate student's rights by punishing religious speech

COLORADO — A federal appeals court ruled astudent’s First Amendment rights were not violated when she was punishedfor mentioning Jesus in her graduation speech.

Upholding a lower court’s decision, the 10th U.S. CircuitCourt of Appeals in Denver said in a 34-page ruling on May 29 that officialsfrom Lewis-Palmer High School in Monument, Colo., were not wrong in forcingErica Corder to apologize for her religious statements.

The school’s principal had reviewed the 15 valedictorian speeches inadvance of the May 2006 commencement, but Corder veered from her original draftand asked the crowd to learn more about Jesus Christ.

In order to receive her diploma, Corder was forced to issue an apology — which school officials insisted include the phrase “I realizethat, had I asked ahead of time, I would not have been allowed to say what Idid.” The apology was e-mailed to the high school community, whichincluded students, by then-Principal Mark Brewer.

In its unanimous opinion, the three-judge panel said officials had alegitimate academic purpose in forcing Corder to include certain phrases in theapology because a commencement speech is directly tied to the school.

“If the School District may censor Corder because her speech isschool-sponsored rather than private, then so may the School District tell herwhat to say when she disregards the School District’s policy regarding theschool-sponsored speech, as long as the compulsion is related to a legitimatepedagogical purpose,” the judges wrote.

Frank LoMonte, an attorney and executive director of the Student Press LawCenter, said allowing officials to compel student speech is the most troublingpart of the ruling.

“That lowers the bar for government to compel some students to speakby tying it to a pedagogical concern,” LoMonte said.

The federal court also ruled Corder’s valedictory address wasconsidered “school-sponsored” because the ceremony is “soclosely connected to the school that it appears the school is somehow sponsoringthe speech.” The court drew on prior school speech cases, includingHazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, which said censorship of highschool-sponsored student expression is constitutionally permissible only whenschool officials can show they have a legitimate educational reason for doingso.

Mat Staver, an attorney with the Liberty Counsel that represents Corder,noted grade point averages, not school officials, determine who are thevaledictorians.

“When the student goes to the lectern to speak, it’s their ownwords, and I don’t think the school should censor their speech nor shouldthey punish their speech after the fact,” Staver said.

Robin Adair, spokeswoman for the district, commented in a preparedstatement.

“This was clearly a school-sponsored event that was subject to thedirection and control of school officials,” Adair said.

District officials did not comment beyond the statement.

Corder was seeking nominal damages, and a declaration that the districtviolated her First Amendment rights and that their unwritten prior review policyfor valedictory speeches was unconstitutional.

Except for the nominal money damages, the court found Corder’s casemoot — she graduated and therefore “will never again be subjectto the unwritten policies of the School District requiring prior content reviewof valedictory speeches.”

But Staver said the court should not have ruled on the case if they foundit moot, noting “you can’t argue that it’s moot and then reachthe merits of the case at the same time.”

Corder’s attorneys also argued that the school had violated her FirstAmendment right to freedom of religion. The court disagreed by saying her speechwas censored because it strayed from the prior reviewed content, not because ofits religious message.

Staver said he is discussing with Corder an appeal to the SupremeCourt.