Valedictorians earn the ability to give graduation speechesthrough their continuous hard work. They get the opportunity to close the highschool chapter for their classmates and themselves. And while graduationspeeches rarely cause riots or uproars, that hasn’t stopped some administratorsfrom censoring, or even rewriting, the speeches.
Whether graduation speeches, poems, T-shirts, drama clubproductions or ‘I Heart Boobies’ bracelets, high school students have at onetime or another seen all these things fall victim to censorship.
The door was opened in 1988, when the Supreme Court rolled backstudents’ rights in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier – a caseabout journalism that increasingly is being applied to student activitiesbeyond the newsroom.
But some students are fighting back – and winning.
In November, the Montana Supreme Court ruled the YellowstoneCounty School District violated the First Amendment rights of then-senior ReneeGriffiths when it forbade her from mentioning God or Christ in her graduationspeech. The trial court had previously ruled Griffiths’ speech was curricularand subject to restrictions as an official message of the school.
Butte High School administrators left the speech topic up tothe speaker. Griffiths decided to give her speech on what she learned in highschool. The superintendent, after reviewing her speech, relayed to Griffithsthat she would need to change her references to a deity.
While the district has a no-censorship policy forpresentations and a disclaimer on graduation programs that student speech issolely that student’s, the district also has a policy forbidding references toreligion to prevent the appearance that the school holds a religiouspreference. In addition to protecting free speech, the First Amendment –through its “establishment clause” – also prevents the government from endorsingan official religion.
In the 6-1 decision, the Montana high court said the schooldistrict “violated Griffith’s constitutional right to free speech because thismatter does not fall within any of the three recognized situations in which itis permissible for school officials to impose a viewpoint-based limitation onstudent speech.”
Those three situations are based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s1969 Tinkerv. Des Moines Independent Community School District ruling and latercases applying it. As described by the Montana court, censorship is permissibleonly if the speech incites a substantial disruption, is part of an officialschool activity or promotes the use of illegal drugs.
William O’Connor II, Griffiths’ attorney, said the schooldistrict’s censorship of the speech “just was wrong. It was a clear violationof her constitutional rights.”
He said the easiest thing for a school district to do iscensor student speech due out of fear of parental backlash, without taking thelaw into consideration.
“They’ve been doing this for years and it appears otherstudents have buckled,” O’Connor said. “They could thank their Uncle Louie,they could thank their teacher, their parents, their dog, their track coach,but you couldn’t thank a deity.”
Despite winning the case, Griffiths gave up her chance tospeak as valedictorian when she refused to change her speech.
“Several people have asked me why she didn’t just take itout and then say it [anyway],” O’Connor said. “She didn’t want to lie, which isagainst her religion, and she also believes in the First Amendment. Even if shedidn’t get to speak, those in the future should be able to.”
‘Grown out of control’
The Hazelwood decision appliesto “educationally justifiable” censorship of speech that is part of aschool-sponsored activity or for credit. In the original case, this meant thehigh school student newspaper. Since then, Hazelwood has been used asa justification in countless court cases involving high school students inother contexts.
In one case, Pounds v. Katy Independent SchoolDistrict, a Texas elementary school tried to use Hazelwoodas justification for forbidding an outside vendor from offering a holiday cardwith a Christian message as part of a fundraiser, though the cards would bedelivered directly to private homes. The judge in that case decided the cardsdidn’t constitute Hazelwood speech.
In Nurre v. Whitehead, the9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided the Everett School District inWashington State was justified in using Hazelwood to preventKathryn Nurre from performing “Ave Maria” at her high school graduationceremony. Administrators believed the song could be seen as the schoolendorsing a particular religion.
After the Colombine High School shooting, the school openedpart of a tile-painting project in the school to community members who wishedto use the area as a remembrance forum. The school prevented some slainstudents’ family members from writing messages with any mention of the tragedy oroffensive or religious symbols, though a plaque in the office at the highschool says “God Weeps Over Colombine.”
In Rohrbough v. Harris, alawsuit challenging the Colorado school’s policy, the 10th U.S. Circuit Courtof Appeals decided Hazelwood applied, as the tiles could be seenas school-sponsored speech. The U.S. Supreme Court later refused to hear thecase.
Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press LawCenter, said there are many students who would be surprised to learn theirrights are compromised by Hazelwood.
“Hazelwood grew out of a newsroom and it wasalways understood and contemplated that it would apply to studentpublications,” he said, “but over the years its application has really grownout of control to where almost any activity taking place in association with aschool is classified by the courts as Hazelwood speech.”
LoMonte said while it could be argued that a theater ormusical production on school grounds could be curricular speech, it’s difficultto imagine how individual graduation speeches or presentations are part of theschool curriculum.
“I don’t think the reasonable listener hearing a graduationspeech thinks of that as a curricular school function. I think they recognizeit for what it is: the expression of the individual speaker’s opinion,” hesaid. “That’s why it’s valuable. Nobody would want to hear the valedictorianread the school press release. They want to hear that student’s individualthoughts beliefs and feelings and students ought to be able to voice thosewithout the principal editing their thoughts.”
In Florida, editing of thoughts is quite literally whathappened. Springstead High School’s principal, Susan Duval, rewrote 2009valedictorian Jem Lugo’s speech. While no court case resulted, the St.Petersburg Times learned of the issue and published Lugo’s speechbefore and after the revision.
Lugo’s original speech included observations about theclass, references to pop culture and practical life lessons. Her originalopening said: “Springstead High School’s class of 2009. Look around you. Thisis it. No more essays, no more FCAT, no more required reading. We survived 13grueling years of school, all for this moment, where we get to wear gowns thatkind of remind me of a silk version of a Snuggie…”
The edited speech opening read: “Springstead High School’sclass of 2009. Look around you. This is it. Ever since I learned what theletters GPA stood for, I have striven to be a part of this ceremony, presentingthis valedictory address. Yet, I stand before you tonight, speechless.”
In a letter, Lugo, who is now a student at HarvardUniversity, told the Times, “Graduation is nolonger about the students at all. It’s about the school, proudly presentinganother fine batch of perfectly acceptable programmed graduates to the rest ofthe community.”
Reading canned remarks written by your principal probablydoesn’t provide the best educational experience, LoMonte said.
“I think, just as with journalistic publications,administrators sometimes want to dumb down school activities to the point whereeven the most delicate person in the world couldn’t be shocked or offended,” hesaid.
Svetlana Mintcheva, program director for the NationalCoalition Against Censorship, agrees. She said there are occasions when aprincipal will edit parts of a student play — the bad words will be cut out oroutfits will be changed, for example — and “those issues tend to go under theradar because they don’t completely cancel the play.”
“There’s a lot of second guessing,” she said. “What might aparent say if they see their kid on stage saying ‘fuck’ or engaged in a playthat has any kid of sexual reference? You could probably read it in class, butyou can’t put it on stage, though we do have many books being censored for thesame reasons.”
Curtain falls on critical play
A group of New York City students recently found their playcancelled for an entirely different reason – it was critical of anadministrator.
The play focused on the school reform movement initiated underoutgoing Chancellor Joel Klein. Principals from the two participating schoolsinformed students in December they were uncomfortable with the play’s criticismof Klein and were pulling the plug, according to The WashingtonPost.
After a public outcry, administrators reversed theirdecision and rescheduled the play.
On the NCAC website, the group suggests that someone whofinds a play objectionable “merely need not purchase a ticket to see it. Tryingto shut down a production or threatening physical violence on any personinvolved is an inappropriate attempt by one group to suppress the viewpoint andfree expression of another.”
Mintcheva said a lot of the censorship in high schools isaimed at “sheltering kids unnecessarily.”
“When a play gets censored, students learn a lot about freespeech. They become quite passionate defenders of free speech,” she said.“They’ve been rehearsing and living with this play they probably now understandbetter than the principal or teachers. This can really damage the trust betweenthe education system and the students. We want them to have the respect oftheir principal and their teachers, and if their principal respects them theywould probably also trust their ability to handle challenging materials.”
In November, NCAC wrote a letter, alongside the DramatistsGuild of America, to express concern when Flagler Palm Coast High School inFlorida canceled a student production of To Kill a Mockingbird, aliterary classic that is part of the curriculum at the school. Administratorswere concerned with “offensive language” and “did not want the students to bein the middle of a ‘highly charged debate.’” After widespread criticism, theschool board voted to allow the play to be rescheduled.
Mintcheva said in a number of cases, students have found analternative place outside school to stage a censored play.
That is exactly what a high school student at Lexington HighSchool in Massachusetts did. Student-director Emma Feinberg’s production of“Columbinus,” which details the 1999 school shooting in Littleton, Colo., wascanceled by school administrators. However, Huntington Theatre Company offeredto let Feinberg show the play at Calderwood Pavilion in Boston in April.
They can handle it
Millie Davis, anti-censorship representative for theNational Council of Teachers of English, said she thinks that while all parentswant to protect their children, “some parents want to do that by putting theirstudents in bubbles.”
She said some parents tend to think that if their childdoesn’t read curse words or sex scenes, or even “something awful like murderingsomebody, that somehow none of those things will ever infringe upon theirlives.”
“People that believe that also believe that students don’thave the ability to read a whole novel and take that whole novel at its worth,”Davis said, “but rather that they will get hung up on a word on page 59, or aracy scene on page 78, and that that will just ruin them. They often see thingsas pieces rather than as wholes.”
She said most students are smarter than they are givencredit for and, under the guidance of a teacher, can handle reading aboutcontroversial subjects.
“Kids are able to read those books and many others and haveexperiences through those characters,” Davis said. “Through that experiencethey learn empathy, they learn about the world around them, they learn aboutthemselves, and those are really important things.”
The best way to prevent censorship in high schools is towork with teachers and principals, Mintcheva said.
“Principals are worried about the PR relationship,” shesaid. “They should realize that it’s part of the educational mission to havekids engaged in something that really interests them. The more principals andteachers have the language and arguments to stand up for the freedom ofstudents to explore ideas, the better served they are in their own mission.”
LoMonte said he wants students to understand that the Hazelwooddecision can affect them, even if they aren’t journalists.
“If they think Hazelwood is someoneelse’s problem they’re wrong,” he said. “It very well may be your problem andyou may not discover it until Hazelwood gets thrown inyour face.”
By Aly Brumback, SPLC staff writer