Friday, July 07, 2006

The Death Knell for Valedictory Speeches?

Hat Tip: Spunkyhomeschool

The past month or so has seen a number of conflicts, some not new, over what is acceptable content in a high school valedictory speech. The latest interations cover matters ranging from the proper role of religion, to whether a blunt criticism of the education provided by the school is properly addressed in a valedictory speech. What all of these incidents, old and new, point to is a coming death of the high school valedictory speech. But a larger questions are presented on a constitutional level, such as whether the valedictorian (or valedictorians) represent the schools in a sense that they are prohibited from mentioning religion and at what point do full free speech rights attach?

A coulpe of weeks ago, a young woman, Brittany McComb, the valedictorian of Foothill High School near Las Vegas, had her microphone turned off mid-speech because she planned to mention Jesus Christ as the most important person in her life.
However, Clark County School District officials and an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union said Friday that cutting McComb's mic was the right call. Graduation ceremonies are school-sponsored events, a stance supported by federal court rulings, and as such may include religious references but not proselytizing, they said.

They said McComb's speech amounted to proselytizing and that her commentary could have been perceived as school-sponsored.

Before she delivered her commencement speech, McComb met with Foothill administrators, who edited her remarks. It's standard district practice to have graduation speeches vetted before they are read publicly.

School officials removed from McComb's speech some biblical references and the only reference to Christ.

But even though administrators warned McComb that her speech would get cut short if she deviated from the language approved by the school, she said it all boiled down to her fundamental right to free speech.
While I agree with position that graduation is a school sponsored event, I am not as certain that references to the Bible (a well read and published book) or to Jesus Christ amount to proselytizing nor am I convinced that the "standard practice" of vetting valedictory speeches is proper.

Even assuming, arguendo, that McComb's speech would be considered by the courts to be proselytizing, I don't believe McComb should be bound by the rules normally associated with preventing public schools from establishing a religion. McComb, and others like her across the country, are not asking for public funds to be expended to support her religion, they mere seek to let people know from where they draw the strength to achieve the spectacular goal of graduating at the top of their class. Furthermore, McComb is not an agent of the school, she is not appearing or holding herself out as an agent, but rather she has been chosen to represent the student body.

While religious references in valedictory speeches probably concern most school officials, the speech that must give them nightmares is teh speech that criticizes the school. Such was the speech of Kareem Elnahal, the valedictorian at Mainland Regional High School in Linwood, NJ. Elnahal's speech is one of the most damning critiques of modern public schools from a student who achieved much by those schools' standards, yet feels cheated by the experience.
Education can be defined a number of different ways. For me, it is the product of human curiosity. Intellectual thought, as far as I can tell, is nothing but the asking and answering of questions. In my reflection, however, and I have reflected on this a great deal, I found that many of life’s most important questions are ignored here. What is the right way to live? What is the ideal society? What principles should guide my behavior? What is success, what is failure? Is there a creator, and if so, should we look to it for guidance? These are often dismissed as questions of religion, but religion is not something opposed to rationality, it simply seeks to answer such questions through faith. The separation of church and state is, of course, important, but it should never be a reason for intellectual submission or suppression of any kind.


We study what is, never why, never what should be. For that reason, the education we have received here is not only incomplete, it is entirely hollow.


Ladies and gentlemen, the spirit of intellectual thought is lost.


But I know how highly this community values learning, and I urge you all to re-evaluate what it means to be educated.
Elnahal's speech is an uncomfortable indictment for those sitting on the dais, I'm sure. But was he right to make the speech. Obviously, school officials have a hypocritical answer:
Daniel Loggi, superintendent of the Atlantic County, N.J., School District, said he was not troubled with Elnahal sharing his thoughts, but disagreed with the manner in which he chose to do it.

"I don't have any problem with anybody speaking what they feel." Loggi told Cybercast News Service. "But there are certain parameters when you have a graduation or any kind of ceremony where you prepare for it. I don't believe the way he did it was appropriate."

Loggi added that the student did not give school administrators the chance to either approve or disapprove. "Who knows whether the Mainland administration would have approved it or not. Maybe they would have, but he didn't give them that opportunity."
I find it highly unlike that the school would have approved of the speech.

But McComb's and Elnahal's stories present, as I said, larger questions. What speech rights do these no longer students have? If high school graduation is supposed to be a passage into adulthood, when young men and women should be accorded certain additional rights. Admittedly, schools have a responsiblity to prevent certain kinds of speech that may be disruptive of the educational mission of the school. But a valedictory speech is not in school, by its very nature, it occurs at the end of the schooling process. Should not the speaker, as long as they are not violating other limitations of speech, such as inciting violence, be fully protected.

Should speeches be vetted prior to them being delivered? Make no doubt, it is a form of censorship, but should it be permitted for a person who has not only graduated, but graduated at the top of their class? Should not the speech that challenges us, questions us, pushes us be protected as much as the normal platitudes we may hear in valedictory speeches? I would argue they should be protected more, for the very reason that they make us uncomfortable.

I do not fault, and indeed applaud, McComb and Elnahal for their actions and their desire to speak their mind. The question of their right to speak as they see fit is a challenging one, but sadly, I fear the reaction of the education establishment will be to prevent such incidents again. Schools with either institute broad censorship programs that prevent speechs like these by requiring a review by school officials or just ban valedictory speeches all together.

In the end the lesson will be that free speech in high schools is something you only get to study, not practice.

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