Friday, June 23, 2006
WILL THE MUZZLED VALEDICTORIAN
SUE FOR FIRST AMENDMENT VIOLATION?
(AgapePress) -- A constitutional attorney is denouncing a Las Vegas school district for pulling the plug on a Christian student's commencement speech because it referred to her faith in Jesus Christ. At a recent graduation ceremony, Clark County School District (CCSD) officials cut the microphone on Foothill High School valedictorian Brittany McComb after she began reading a speech that contained Bible verses and references to God.
The district officials claim McComb's speech amounted to religious proselytizing and could have been perceived as school-sponsored, thus making it a violation of the so-called separation of church and state. But Mat Staver, founder and chairman of the Florida-based pro-family legal organization Liberty Counsel, says the high school valedictorian has every right to take the school district to court over the incident.
"I think this is one of the most outrageous examples of censorship at graduation that I've seen," Staver contends. "For school officials to literally be standing by the switch at the mixing board and cut the microphone on a student, simply because that student mentions God or Jesus, is just unbelievable."
With high school behind her, McComb plans to study journalism at Biola University, a Christian college in Southern California. But during her four years at Foothill, she says, "they taught me logic and they taught me freedom of speech." However, when the school's 2006 valedictorian tried to apply these lessons in her graduation address, the graduating senior with the 4.7 GPA ran into a problem.
In vetting McComb's speech, school officials stripped it of biblical references and approved an edited version, cutting six mentions of God or Christ and omitting two biblical references. At the graduation exercises, however, the teen commencement speaker felt compelled to deviate from the edited version. "God's the biggest part of my life," she says. "Just like other valedictorians thank their parents, I wanted to thank my Lord and Savior."
For the Foothill High School graduate, it all boiled down to her faith and her fundamental First Amendment right to free speech. For those reasons , she asserts, she chose in this instance to rebel against authority for the first time in her life. And, according to an Associated Press report, a sympathetic crowd of nearly 400 graduates and their families booed angrily at the school officials for several minutes after they cut McComb's microphone.
An American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Nevada official who read the unedited version of the young woman's speech told the Las Vegas Review-Journal newspaper the school district did the right thing in cutting the valedictory address short. But Staver disagrees that the district's action was warranted and comments, "In my opinion it's reprehensible, and I also believe it's unconstitutional."
The ACLU spokesperson quoted in the Review-Journal made the argument that graduation speakers like McComb are given a school-sponsored forum and therefore their speech is school-sponsored speech. But Liberty Counsel's chairman insists that student commencement speakers' personal remarks and expressions are free speech under the U.S. Constitution.
"Clearly, the law protects students who are in the graduation podium, on the platform, because they are there for some neutral reason -- in this case, being the valedictorian," Staver says. "That student has the right to be able to give a message of his or her own choice regarding the viewpoint of the particular message that's being delivered."
While the attorney regards the silencing of McComb's speech at the Foothill High School commencement as one of the most egregious acts of graduation censorship he has seen, he notes that it is one among many such incidents that happen to speakers of faith every year -- a problem that has to be stopped. "Schools should not, must not, and must stop censoring these kinds of religious viewpoints simply because they are Christian in nature," he says.
Even now, Staver points out, his organization is involved in a similar case. Liberty Counsel is currently representing a Colorado high school graduate whose diploma was withheld after she shared her faith in Jesus Christ during a commencement speech.
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