Valedictorians and Jesus

Continued from this thread.

First, there’s no such thing as a right to a valedictorian speech. Rights by their nature aren’t earned, anyway. What’s she’s getting is an honor, and one that (I believe) the school is not required to give to anybody. While the school can’t dictate what she’s allowed to think, they absolutely may dictate what she’s allowed to say when she’s speaking at a school function at the request of the school administration.

Second, preventing her from violating school rules is nothing like punishing her for violating school rules. If a cop catches me in the act of lifting your wallet, but just makes me give you back the wallet and then lets me leave, he hasn’t punished me at all. He’s just stymied my attempt to break the law. I agree, you can fairly say they excised her remarks. You can just as fairly say that the school declined to help promote her religious message. It was, after all, the school’s microphone. They have every right to dictate what use it is being put towards.

For what it’s worth, I’d be just as opposed. More so, even, since aside from being a needless and legally questionable injection of religion into a secular, publicly-funded ceremony, it’d also be pretty insulting to the (almost certain) majority of the audience who believes in a God of some nature. It’s Graduation Day. It’s supposed to be a happy occasion, not a chance for some jerkass teenager to take shots at someone else’s cherished beliefs.

The devil you say!

I think we can go to far trying to walk a tightrope of seperation of church and state. Of course the student can’t say anything he or she wants so I do think the school has a right to some screening.

If the sudent wanted to thank God, Allah, Jesus, Buddha, Thor or anyone else for helping them I think thats acceptable. To approach it in a way that suggests what others should believe is another matter.

“I want to thank my Lord {insert diety} tonight for helping me to get here”
“We all need to thank {diety} and make {diety} the focus of our lives”

If the school prevent any hint of any religious belief then I think it’s over reacting and thats to bad for all concerned, but it’s still there call. Of course part of that call is dealing with the shit storm that follows.

Actually, I believe the right to proselytize in ways that do not disturb the public order is generally considered to be included under the rights of free speech and freedom of religion under the First Amendment.

I expect the relevant Supreme Court decision here would be Tinker v. Des Moines ISD which held that students have a right to free speech, providing that speech is not inherently disruptive of the educational mission of the schools. It also held that schools could not forbid certain expressions based on content, but leave others alone.

So it would be necessary to show that thanking God in a valedictory address is inherently disruptive. You can’t ban it just because it might be controversial.


Reposted from the other thread:

The relevant court cases about religious content in a valedictory speech are: Cole v. Oroville Union High School Dist. (2000) and *Santa Fe Independent School Dist. v. Doe * (2000). These held that the school can restrict the student’s speeches if they contain religious content. OTOH, in Adler v. Duval County School Bd. (2001), a district court in Florida held the exact opposite.

Seems like there was also a SCOTUS opinion on prayer at graduation excercises that may be relevant. Slightly different than a Valedictorian speech, but close enough that it may apply. Think it came down in the late 80’s, early 90s, but I’m not certain of the date, and don’t remember the party names.

The thing is, you can’t just focus on the right of the student to speak. There are other, competing interests at stake here–namely, the Establishment Clause rights of those in the audience. A State may not express a preference for a particular religion, or for religion over non-religion. Graduation is a momentous occaision, a milestone event for many people. Little Wendy Wiccan, Harry Hindu, or Sammy Satanic and family may not wish to be effectively forced to hear and/or participate by silent acceptance, of little Jimmy Jesus spouting off his religous faith. I highly doubt those that would support the cause of Jimmy Jesus would be so supportive of Sammy Satanic invoking Satan’s blessing at a graduation–though being the irreverant heathen that I am, I might well buy a ticket to watch it happen.

When I balance the competing interests, it seems fair that if you’d allow one, you’d have to allow all. Since I can’t see Sammy Satanic getting equal time with Jimmy Jesus, I would ban all such speach at graduation. Note that this is only my own opinion, backed by my understanding of Establishment Clause principles, but with no research into the relevant cases.

See here for details on prayer at graduation.

Yes and no. There is a contract of sorts. The title of valedictorian is an honor that goes to the best student. That person who reaches that distinction gets to deliver a speech to her classmates and schoolmates. The content of the speech revolves around some combination of how she accomplished what she did, the challenges that face them in the future, how she plans to deal with them, etc. The thinking is that she might have a better handle on what it takes someone of her age to succeed than either the other students or the adminstrators. The point is for her to share her ideas on the matters mentioned above, so that others might benefit from them. Curtailng her speech (again, assumiing it is on point) is unfair to both her and to those who might benefit from hearing her thoughts.

I’m sure there was more than one valedictorian back in the sixties who said something to the effect “… so no matter where we go or what we do, the important thing is to love not hate, forgive, not strike back…”, which I assume you’d be fine with. But whay is that so different to a hypothetical student of today saying “…so we must work hard, work well with others, and always keep Jesus in our hearts. He has given my strength over these past four years, and I know he will be there for me during the next four…”?

I look at it differently: your wallet can be returned to you. You can made whole. I might be the school’s microohone, but a certain time in front of it was granted to a certain student, whoever could earn the honor of being called valedictorian. If they want to control all speech, they should eliminate the valedictorian’s right to the mic. It’s akin to me asking you what you think and then telling you that you have to choose from your list of approved topics. Let’s say your father was the most important thing in your life, he raised you alone, made sacrifice after sacrifice, worked three jobs, etc etc, etc. If I then asked you to tell me who the most important person in your life was, but stipulated that you couldn’t say your father (maybe some other kids don’t have fathers and would feel bad), your response, if you were able to muster one, would be hollow, meaningless.

So, it wasn’t enough for you to be wrong just once? :slight_smile:

This is a tricky case.

Yes, but that’s not really the question here. The question is whether, by making someone who is determined to prosletyze school students at a mandatory school function a speaker, the school is engaging in endorsement. It’s all well and good for someone to speak bout religion, but it’s also pretty clear that government should not be in the business of arranging secretarian prosletyzing specifically. We’re dealing with a case in Delaware right now in which a pastor was invited not only to speak at graduation, but specifically singled out a Jewish student for a special prayer that they would see the light. That’s not exactly the function of a public school, as I hope you will agree. The question is, when its a student, but that student is knowingly selected to give a certain message, is that any different? And how to do we tell and draw the line?

The issue is complicated by, of course, the fact that the school both selected the student but also actively tried to stop her message. But in legal terms, that’s irrelevant: no one knows or can prove what the true intentions of a given school are. One school might seek to avoid having prosletyzing, but another might actually intend to arrange it each and every time. If one isn’t circumspect, then are any number of goofy loopholes that basically end us back up with school prayer with a goofy rationale justifying it. As was noted, you obviouly can’t have Pat Robertson come in to tell lesbians about how they are all hellbound. But can you arrange for the valedictorian to read a prepared speech written verbatim from the exact same remarks by Robertson.

Personally, I think the school acted rashly and probably should have just let her say whatever she wanted to say.

The school does have an argument to be made, however, that the act of lying or breaking a prior agreement is sufficiently disruptive in itself to turn down a mike on a speaker. Schools screen for content all the time, and often act when something goes off the rails. When I was in high school, a student assembly skit veered off script into references of certain girls tea-bagging… and the school cut the mikes when it went off script before it got much worse, even though the cutters didn’t actually know what tea-bagging was (they just saw something getting out of hand). The school can argue that this sort of screening for “if they went off script and said that, who knows what else they might say” is a normal function for programes which the school officially puts together, in which case the issue isn’t one of free speech at all, but stage management.

I like that link, Silenus. Finding it somewhat difficult to reconcile the District Court in Adler with the Supreme Court opinion in Santa Fe, even though the Supremes were dealing with a football pregame prayer rather than a graduation ceremony…

But I don’t think it’s a contract of the sort any court would recognize. It may be a tradition in some schools, but there is no legal requirement to it, no force for it to happen. A school could have no speakers at all for all it cared.

Would you feel the same way if the student attributed his success to Satan, Thor, or Diana?

Seriously. Would you be willing to sit there at your child’s graduation, and listen to the Valedictorian say something like “Hail, Dark Spirits who rise from the shadows of the night, we acknowledge your dark power and revel in thy evil. Slay the Christians, and aid us to drink the blood of their babies to the greater glory of Cthulu”.

I’d be fine with THE valedictorian commenting in any relevant way. If she chose to credit her faith for her success and she thanks Satan, fine. (See post to Miller, above.)

And it seems to me that if it is estaqblished at the beginning of the school year (as it is) that THE best student will be able to share her thoughts about success and the future, I don’t how the school can be accused of favoring one religion over another. A Christian kid might earn the honor, a Muslim, Kid, a Buddhist, Jew, Atheist, whetever. And each of these kids might choose to mention her beliefs or not. It seems to be a matter of how important it was to them personally. I personally would hope that ALL mentions of faith be left out, but if someone believes that their success is due in large part to their faith, they should be able to be honest and state that fact.

No, I didn’t mean a contract in any legal sense, though ingrained tradition might at some point translate to reasonabel expectation, which might lead to some leagl claim. I’ll leave that for lawyers to parse. But it is a tradition. There is an expectation that whoever is the best student gets to share her thoughts with her fellow graduates and underclassmen. If a school had this tradition for 100 years straight, a reasonable person could expect it to continue. Of course, the school could end it at any time. If thay did, they should at the beginning of the school year.

OK, fair enough. Credit where credit is due, you seem to be willing to be fair about letting anybody speak.

What do you say about those in the audience? You know as well as I do that most people aren’t willing to be quite so openminded about things. An invocation to Satan may well cause a riot in the Bible Belt–is it fair to allow a milestone event to be effectively ruined by one person, given the Establishment Clause protections, and attributing the content of the speach, at least in part, to the State for providing the microphone as in the *Santa Fe * case cited above?

I’ve got a question, which isn’t for anyone specific, but I think it’s an interesting parallel. Would you be accepting of a Valedictorian whose speech consisted of him or her saying that they owe their success to their drinking a huge amount of alcohol during their time their (and not as a joke), or them having slept with a wide variety of complete strangers they picked up from bars the night before exams?

Hell, Revenant, I was that kid. Of course, I was not valedictorian, and there was no way my high school was allowing me anywhere near a live microphone…

I say, “You are guests here. Please sit and listen politely. If you’d like, you can always step outside for a few minutes.” If someone gets out of hand, have them removed, just like at any speech. If the crowd boos, let them boo, just like at any speech. The right to say what you want does not mean that others have to like it.

I don’t mean to defend an absolutist postition here. As I’ve alluded a few times, I think the speech has to be on point. I do think it is fine to ban the valedictorian from prostelytizing. I just don’t thiink anyone has the right to have a kid offer what she believes was importan to her success, whether that is plain old hard work, talkinig to her cat every night, or keeping Jesus as an important part of every day.

I think any perceived problem in the Santa Fe case could be avoided by the Dean giveing a preamble: “The valedictorian will now share with us her thoughts…And thay are just that, her thoughts…” or something like that. That would reverse the reasoanble belief of the "objective observer, wouldn’t it?

Dammit Maggy. If you insist on being reasonable even when I disagree with your position, how I am I going to enjoy fighting with you in the pit anymore? What about all the little Oakiemaniacs that liked to watch the show? Think of the children!

On the merits, that doesn’t seem to jibe with the Santa Fe case, but does seem to be in line with Adler. Not sure what SCOTUS would do about it, but I suspect they’ll get the chance…

Well, it’s part of it.

True. It also cannot be in the business of preventing certain kinds of non-disruptive speech, and not others. That would be an interference with the free practice of religion and/or free speech.

Keep in mind that the valedictorian is a private citizen, and the schools are agents of the state. The state has restrictions on it that a private citizen does not.

I agree, that’s pretty offensive, but a lot more directly and personally than someone attributing their success in school to Jesus.

Not to nitpick, but I don’t believe you could characterize the school’s action as selecting a student in order to deliver a religious message. They selected the valedictorian to deliver an address to say, essentially, whatever she wanted as long as it did not inherently interfere with the educational mission of the school. The problem comes in when the school begins to pick and choose certain types of non-disruptive speech that it will allow and some it will forbid. That becomes content-based censorship, and the schools as agents of the state have no business doing that.
And that seems to be what you mention the school was doing here -

I don’t know from “legal terms”, but in this case the intentions of the school might not be relevant. If it has a “chilling effect” on free speech, you (or rather, the state and its agents) can’t censor free speech even with the best intentions.

I agree.

Sort of a catch-22, isn’t it? Make the student agree not to exercise her rights. If she keeps the agreement, she has lost her rights. If she doesn’t, then she can be banned from exercising her rights for breaking the agreement.

Some catch, that catch-22.