How High School Graduation is Becoming a Battleground for Free Speech

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

Picture this: A woman wrestled out of a meeting by police officers for speaking up. A girl forced to pay a fine for wearing a small cultural symbol. Another girl pressured by authorities to apologize after using an unfavorable word. A man ordered to perform community service because a family member broke strict rules of conduct.

What comes to mind? A police state in the third world, a past society under revolutionary military rule, or the dystopian world of the Hunger Games, maybe? As it turns out, every single one of these scenes comes from somewhere a little more familiar: present-day high school graduations.

In recent years, graduation season has become something other than a time for yearbook signing, sappy playlists and lofty speeches about chasing your dreams. Some schools are tightening restrictions on what students and their families say, do, and wear on the big day, turning commencement into a battleground for freedom of expression.

Consider the cases of these students:

  1. When Iesha Cooper was called to receive her diploma, her mother stood up and cheered, “Yay! My baby made it.” The mom was arrested and taken to jail.
  2. Justin Denney blew an impromptu kiss to his family when it was his turn to receive his diploma. His Maine school sent him back to his seat empty-handed, accusing him of misbehavior.
  3. Valedictorian Kaitlin Nootbaar slipped the word “hell” into her speech. Not only was she denied her diploma; she was asked to write a formal apology. (Side note: Her school’s mascot is the Red Devil. Ironic?)
  4. The proud family of Anthony Cornist, a teen in Cincinnati, cheered for his accomplishments, but his school wasn’t as enthusiastic: the administration kept Cornist’s diploma and demanded 20 hours of community service to make up for his family’s “excessive” celebration.
  5. Most recently: Chelsey Ramer, a member of the Poarch Band of Creek, attached single eagle feather to the tassel on her cap. The school withheld her diploma and transcripts until she agreed to pay a $1000 fine, saying that the feather, which holds spiritual and cultural significance for Ramer, did not meet the pre-approved code of dress.

America has a stronger tradition in freedom of expression than perhaps any other place on earth. Ask Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church, whom the First Amendment allows to picket at military funerals. Ask journalists, who report government secrets and can’t be touched for it. Ask the flag-burners, ask the cross-torchers, and you will find one thing: In this country, a person’s right to say just about anything is protected—unless, apparently, that person happens to be graduating from high school.

Sure, the audience and the administration have the right to be offended by certain words or behavior. They have the right to disagree, and they have the right to criticize. But do they have the right to dictate a student’s word choice or a family’s behavior at a public forum? I don’t think so. It would be understandable if the so-called disruptions were harmful or hateful. But something as trivial as blowing a kiss? Come on.

When it comes to freedom of expression, what a school can dictate varies whether it is public or private. Typically private institutions have far more authority over the conduct of their students, from tighter dress codes to stricter behavior policies. But here’s the thing: of the five examples above, only Ramer attended a private school. In all the other cases, it is a government institution—the same government that claims to protect the Bill of Rights—that is carrying out the censorship.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

Even if a school does have such power, exercising it seems counter to the spirit of education. After all, what is the purpose of schooling: to teach kids to stay quiet and kiss the ground walked on by authority, or to teach discernment, questioning, and confidence? At best, the discipline we have seen is lazy. Such black and white rules allow schools to apply blanket punishments without having to exercise any judgment. At worst, it is discrimination, targeting people for their age or cultural beliefs. Somewhere in the middle, it can be seen as bullying: school officials wielding their petty power over students up to the last second, without any regard for the fact that students have already completed every academic requirement.

I hope that these school’s efforts to keep freedom on a leash prove themselves counter-productive. I hope that the rules and the discipline that seek to make people sit down in their place encourage them to stand up and speak louder. I hope that censorship fuels the fire it seeks to put out. In some cases, this is exactly what we’re seeing: Kaitlin Nootbaar refused to apologize for her word choice. Chelsey Ramer, though she agreed to pay for wearing her feather, said the price for her expression was totally worth it.

A few days ago, a student named Roy Costner IV used his valedictorian speech at graduation as a protest, as a platform to stand up for what he believes in. The school district had recently decided to ban prayer at the ceremony, so what did he do? He ripped up his pre-approved speech and recited the Lord’s Prayer. He could have been censored, denied his diploma, fined, and made to apologize, if Liberty High School officials followed the pattern set by other institutions. Instead, here is their response:

“The bottom line is, we’re not going to punish students for expressing their religious faiths. He’s a graduate now. There’s nothing we can do about it, even if we wanted to.”

Finally, we are given an example of a school that respects the rights and accomplishments of its students, a school that realizes that what comes out of a speaker’s mouth is not under their jurisdiction. And whether you agree with his stance on prayer or not, you have to at least see that this kid understands his First Amendment rights and has the guts to exercise them when authority disapproved.

Congratulation to all members of the Class of 2013.


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