6/23/2006

Something to think about

I got an email with this story in it. I wanted to hear what those of my friends who are more familiar with the 1st amendment had to say.


Brittany McComb was the valedictorian at Foothill High School recently. She graduated with a 4.7 GPA. She earned the right to address the other graduates at Foothill, located in Henderson, Nevada.
She gave a copy of her graduating speech to the school administrators. It contained some Biblical references and even mentioned (one time) the name “Christ.” The school administrators censored some of the Biblical references. They also censored the single reference to Christ.
Then the school officials handed the speech over to the ACLU for approval and/or more censoring. After getting the OK from the ACLU, Brittany’s speech (minus the censored references to the Bible and Christ) was approved. Brittany was warned that if she deviated from the ACLU approved language, her mike would be cut off.
Then came the moment for the big decision. She would not bow down, she decided. She would go with her original version. She stepped to the mike and began her speech. But just before she could utter the name “Christ,” her mike went dead. School officials silenced her. The crowd of 400 jeered for several minutes, angry at the action of the school officials.

8 comments:

Ella said...

There are some other cases you might want to look at regarding children's freedom of expression within schools.

The Supreme Court addressed the issue in Bethel Sch. Dist. v. Fraser, 478 U.S. 675 (1986) and Hazelwood Sch. Dist v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U.S. 260 (1988). Religious expression in schools is covered tangentially in Boroff v. Van Wert, a 6th Circuit case from 2000. It is covered directly in a Massachusetts case - L.I.F.E. Club v. Westfield - from 2003.

Ella

scarlet panda said...

This is tough, because the first amendment cuts both ways. Under the free speech and free exercise clauses, it seems like she should be allowed to speak. Under the establishment clause, there might be a concern that her views would be seen as those of the school, since they're giving her a platform at an official event.

If you put religion aside, students have really minimal free speech rights, especially in school-sponsored situations. The Supreme Court is super-deferential to school administrators who want to shelter students from other students who might say inappropriate things. If Brittany McComb had wanted to talk about her concerns about teen pregnancy and divorce, the school administrators would have been free to censor her (see Hazelwood).

When you add in religion, it becomes more complicated. At least in the public college setting, courts seem to be a little more pro-speech rights when religion is involved, but not always.

I think students should have really broad free speech rights, regardless of subject matter. I don't see a big establishment clause problem where, as here, it's pretty clear that it's the student speaking and not the school.

Weirdly, a lot of the same people who complain about Hazelwood and Bethel are probably ok with this kind of censorship, and vice versa.

scarlet panda said...

I should say that I know absolutely nothing about the free exercise and establishment clauses other than that they exist.

Arfanser said...

So after some discussion with Matt today, I realized what bugged me was not that the school administrators cut her off as much as it was that the ACLU got to proof read and censor the speech of a high school student. Why is the ACLU even there? I understand that the school is trying to avoid lawsuits, but honestly do any of my more liberal minded friends find that a little ridiculous.

For the record, I think the school administrators cutting the girl off is overkill, but not that big of a deal, except for the fact that they did it because the ACLU told them to do it.

Matt said...

I found a copy of the full text of Brittany McComb's speech here. You can read the text and draw your own conclusions, but I think the speech is a sermon. For example, here's where the administration pulled the plug:

God's love is so great that he gave His only son up [mike cut] to an excruciating death on a cross so His blood would cover all our shortcomings and provide for us a way to heaven in accepting this grace.

That's hard core. The school, to my mind, should have free rein to vet the speeches to eliminate all references to "excruciating death."

Her cause would fare a little better if her speech were less preachy, I think, though I tend to defer to the school on these matters. I don't think the school established a public forum in any meaningful way, and the kid violated an agreement she had with the school. She broke her word.

I'd be more sympathetic if this were a "speaking truth to power" type situation, like she'd gone off on the administration or delivered a critique of the education system, but her speech advocates the majority religious opinion. And majorities rallying around their religious identity in a public setting with the air of government approval make me nervous.

But you asked for a free speech-oriented answer, so let me suggest this:

We have free speech to protect minority opinions, not expressions of the majority sentiment. We want many voices in the debate, and if a specific expression of a majority opinion is silenced, there's not much harm. Free speech doctrine evolved as a protection for people with minority political and religious viewpoints - communists and Jehovah's Witnesses, largely. Not capitalists and Lutherans. It's hard to see what the harm is, as the message already has significant traction in realm of ideas.

Incidentally, I would note that "excruciating" is of Latin derivation, that ex-cruciare means "to crucify" and that the root in there is "crux, crucis," meaning "cross." It's the same as the English word crux, meaning the essential bit ("the crux of his argument is..."). So "excruciating death" is singularly appropriate, but in a grammatical sense and not a social sense.

scarlet panda said...

Did the ACLU actually edit or approve the speech beforehand? The impression I get from the articles I looked at is that the school administrators censored the speech alone. Then, after the incident, the ACLU lawyers took a look at the speech and said they agreed with the school's decision.

Am I right? Is there a reliable source that says what really happened?

Matt said...

The Las Vegas Review-Journal says that administrators edited the speech, and that an ACLU counsel "had read the unedited version of McComb's speech and said district officials did the right thing by cutting McComb's speech short because her commentary promoted religion." Which I read as "this guy comments after the fact." AP/MSNBC says that the school district vetted the speech and the same ACLU guy says that this was legally appropriate.

Most tellingly, the Rutherford Institute, which says its representing McComb in a 1am/equal protection claim, writes that "School administrators, upon the advice of their district legal counsel, proceeded to censor her speech..."

I would think they'd trumpet the news that the ACLU really did vet the speech, if it did.

Arfanser said...

Thanks for the clarification.