As high schools across the country resume traditional graduation ceremonies following a pandemic-imposed hiatus, it was only a matter of time before a commencement speech controversy made national news.
A Michigan principal wisely reversed course after telling Hillsdale High School co-valedictorian Elizabeth Turner to omit remarks about her Christian faith from a draft of her speech submitted for review. When Turner takes the podium on June 6, her message to fellow graduates won’t be censored.
Administrators dropped their demand that Turner revise the speech a day after the First Liberty Institute, a conservative Christian legal group, intervened on her behalf. A letter from First Liberty attorneys Mike Berry and Keisha Russell warned Principal Amy Goldsmith that barring religious references would violate Turner’s First Amendment rights.
In a Google Docs file, Goldsmith highlighted two paragraphs in Turner’s speech as inappropriate for a public school. The selected portion begins: “For me, my future hope is found in my relationship with Christ.”
A note Goldsmith added to the document indicates the text had already been sanitized once.
“This is better and you fixed the language, but you are representing the school in the speech, not using the podium as your public forum,” the principal wrote. “We need to be mindful about the inclusion of religious aspects. These are your strong beliefs, but they are not appropriate for a speech in a school public setting.”
Goldsmith wanted to avoid running afoul of the First Amendment’s establishment clause, which prevents government agencies like public schools from endorsing religion. She overlooked the free-exercise clause, which guarantees citizens the right to practice their faith without undue interference.
Graduates selected to speak on the basis of high grades – valedictorians and salutatorians – or leadership roles may represent the current senior class, but a speaking slot on the commencement stage doesn’t make them the school’s mouthpiece.
“Student graduation speeches constitute private speech, not government speech, and private speech is not subject to the Establishment Clause,” Berry and Russell wrote in the First Liberty Institute letter.
They included the requisite case law citations, and perhaps a high school principal could be forgiven for not keeping tabs on the state of First Amendment jurisprudence and its application to specific school functions. But the lawyers also cited a source with which administrators should be familiar – a U.S. Department of Education guidance document.
The federal agency instructs public schools not to restrict graduation speakers’ religious or anti-religious messages as long as they write their own speeches and were selected on the basis of neutral criteria, such as weighted grade-point average.
While the guidance is only about a year old, first appearing online last June, it ought to be required reading for school officials who organize and oversee commencement exercises. But widespread confusion over students’ free speech rights and religious liberty persists.
Elizabeth Turner was far from the first graduation speaker to face unconstitutional censorship, and she won’t be the last.
In North Carolina, SouthWest Edgecombe High School caused a stir when it switched 2017 senior class president Marvin Wright’s commencement speech with an alternate version school officials had prepared. When Wright reached the podium, he ignored the school’s script and recited his own words instead.
Then-Principal Craig Harris withheld Wright’s diploma as punishment. Coverage quickly spread from local to state to national news outlets. As criticism mounted, Harris hand-delivered the diploma to Wright’s home. Edgecombe County Public Schools’ superintendent publicly apologized and suspended the principal days later.
Commencement presents unique conditions that tend to aggravate power struggles between students and administrators. To promote decorum, many schools forbid cheering, limit opportunities for applause and rigidly control conduct at the ceremonies.
Meanwhile, graduates are testing the bounds of their freedom as alumni who’ve completed all their coursework and no longer face the threat of detention hall.
A rite of passage marking the transition from childhood to adulthood is precisely the wrong time to tighten the reins. Schools should remember that graduation is for the graduates. Commencement speakers choose their words carefully, often spending endless days and sleepless nights agonizing over their scripts. They must remain free to speak for themselves.