Getting schooled in the First Amendment

The Burlington Free Press has an interesting story with “Fair Haven’s censorship of valedictorian’s speech on God reflects church-state tensions.” But I’m not sure that headline is accurate of the situation. It is an accurate summary of the story, however. It begins:

Kyle Gearwar, valedictorian of his class at Fair Haven Union High School, stood before his classmates, family and friends Friday night to deliver half the speech he’d written for his graduation ceremony. He had the other half, he told the crowd, but he’d been told he could not read it.

He wanted to talk about how God had changed his life. School officials said no.

Gearwar’s would-be speech highlights a difficult balancing act public school officials perform at this time of year as students deliver personal speeches on stage at school-sponsored events.

“It is a fine line here. Here’s freedom of speech and here’s separation of church and state,” Fair Haven Union High School principal Brett Blanchard said. “The line is generally the difference between proselytizing and personalizing.”

Now, I have no doubt that a public school principal might say something like this. But I don’t think that’s the line in question. Let’s revisit the relevant portions of the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech …

Right. And Gearwar was the valedictorian, meaning he was the highest-ranked student at the school. That does not mean that he was an official of the school. So I’m most interested in how the school thinks it wasn’t violating the free exercise clause or just the student’s free speech in general.

But the article only looks at the establishment clause issue:

Gearwar was allowed to mention God and Jesus in the accepted portion of his speech, Blanchard noted, but he said public schools have to be careful about allowing someone to preach their religion at a school-sanctioned event.

“They basically said those statements were promoting religion,” Gearwar said Tuesday.

Court cases have offered some parameters but have not quite settled the debate over exactly what can and can’t be said, said Cheryl Hanna, a professor at Vermont Law School who has been discussing just this topic with students for the past six months. “The law on this issue is very unclear,” she said.

Good thing those school administrators aren’t getting too involved in religion, eh? Hanna points out that the school probably overreacted but I really think this story could have used a few more perspectives from law profs.

The article explains that Gearwar is an 18-year-old headed for pre-med studies at the University of Connecticut. He excelled in science and took on projects to improve the life of the school. We learn what he said at his graduation:

Gearwar thanked his parents, his brother, his church pastors and youth group leaders and members, then told the audience the rest had been axed by school officials over his references to the Bible, Jesus and a better life.

“I have always dreamed of speaking about God in front of my school as the valedictorian,” he said in his speech. “This was the message God gave to me, and I am not allowed to share it with you even though it is my testimony, the most important change my life has ever experienced, and the one thing that I stand for no matter what.”

“Read it. Read it anyway,” a man yelled from the crowd.

Gearwar declined. “I’m not going to read it because I promised I wouldn’t,” he said.

Way to go, school officials! Turns out that they made Gearwar submit his text to the officials so that they could approve or disapprove of it. A lawyer suggested changes and Gearwar revised his speech. Then he was told that he simply couldn’t give large portions of it. The story does a good job of explaining the religious details of the censored speech, such as:

In the un-read portion of his text, Gearwar said, “As soon as I gave this to God and let him fight my battles my entire life has changed. … He is the reason I am the man I am today, made new through Jesus’ death on the cross.”

The principal who censored the speech, however, wouldn’t discuss why. And the student says he has no plans to challenge the censorship in court.

All in all, a very interesting story with important details included. I do wish we’d have had a bit more perspective, as I said, from Constitutional scholars. And I also might have liked a secular perspective from someone who could address whether teenagers should be protected from speech such as this or whether 17- and 18-year-olds who are headed off to college can discern the appropriate response to a speech such as this. I mean, when I graduated, I’m pretty sure my graduating class could handle someone of any religious persuasion — including some far-out religious persuasions — giving a speech such as this without being confused about whether it was coming down on high from the State or from the fellow student who made Valedictorian. Does that have anything to do with whether the government had a valid interest in censoring speech? It might be interesting to get some non-legal perspectives as well.

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  • Ryan K.

    Good article, though I wonder if these annual graduation kerfuffle articles could be improved by having law professors weigh in on the topic.

    Often it seems like it is just a replay of the principle thinking the 1st Amendment says something it does not, and a student wanting to exercise free speech.

  • Matthew

    “First they came for the Jews and I didn’t speak up…”
    Gearwar should have sued the school and the principal. Not speaking up is giving the oppressor the right to oppress you.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I’m puzzled that there were no quotes from the boy’s parents. It is hard to see how government censorship of what are supposed to be the honest words of a student who had earned the right to speak can be anything but a trashing of the First Amendment that says the government has no business prohibiting the exercise of religion or abridging freedom of speech.
    The fig leaf so many government bureaucrats hide behind is how the audience will take a mention of God or religion. But government is not supposed to operate on the principle of whether someone out there doesn’t like the exercise of any particular freedom. If that also became the rule in the case of other freedoms we definitely wouldn’t have any because you can always find someone who doesn’t like certain freedoms being exercised.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    I thought there was an interesting discussion the last time this came up here.

  • Ted

    Deacon John has a good point about no comments from the parents.

    Also, if these speeches are going to be so censored and watered down from what the speaker intends, then why have them?

    If our culture has become that fragile in being offended it might be time we just do away with this element of graduation ceremonies. After all, we did not really get to hear from this student since he was censored, so why bother?

    Plus if the 1st Amendment really means never being able to saying anything about God or religion in a government involved format, than NPR is in massive violation of this interpretation. NPR even has entire shows on religion, that are partially paid for by the government.

  • Harold

    NPR even has entire shows on religion, that are partially paid for by the government.

    But NPR isn’t coerced religious speech to a captive audience. Unlike the high school graduate subjected to God-talk during a speech they have to listen to and attend in order to get their diploma, you can turn off NPR. Their religious programming is also non-sectarian.

    These cases come down to whether students are a captive audience and whether the government-sponsored speech is really voluntary by the speaker. School administrators are caught in an awful position, shackled by confusing case law and well-funded interest groups on both sides prepared to litigate at the drop of a hat.

    Schools have to balance the religious liberty rights of the speaker and the rights of students in the audience. It’s easy for Christians–who are almost never forced to listen to coercive non-Christian religious speech as a captive audience–to say it’s no big deal. It’s a much larger deal for real religious minorities who are subjected to these kinds of experience on a regular basis and told to “lightenn up” when they complain.

  • Ted

    Harold you do not HAVE to attend the graduation ceremony to get your diploma.

    Besides, part of the graduation ceremony is letting the best student speak. All I am saying is that if you are going to censor them or ask them to cut out large parts of what makes them who they are, then why bother? Just do away with it.

    I could only imagine though if a Valedictorian of other persuasions was asked to neuter themselves…

    And technically the 1st Amendment does not provide a “right” to not hear religious speech. Only that the government will not establish a religion. An 18 year old talking about how they love Jesus is a far reach from the government establishing religious institutions.

    And to your last point, Christians constantly hear ideologies that are contrary to their convictions. I would argue that Christians and Southerners are the only two people groups left in America that it is still PC to make fun of and disparage in mainstream entertainment and writings.

  • Harold

    Ted, the courts generally view graduation as a “captive audience” because you are essentially required to sit there and listen to whatever is said. It’s an imperfect term, but one the courts use to describe situations where students are essentially required to listen to religious speech.

    I liked this story precisely because it explained the tension that exists. I also appreciate the fact that the student (or his parents) decided not to call in the Alliance Defense Fund or the Becket Fund to litigate the matter and instead just move ahead because he understood the tension.

    Christians constantly hear ideologies that are contrary to their convictions.

    But almost never religious speech. We are talking religious speech, not political stuff. Christians aren’t forced to listen to Muslims or Jews, for instance, express their religious beliefs in coerced, captive situations sponsored by the government. But non-Christians find themselves in these situations alot, which is why these kinds of protections have been created.

  • Martha

    I have a certain amount of sympathy for the school; yes, it does sound very heavy-handed, but on the other hand, you had that post on Katherine Stewart’s piece disapproving of her local school permitting a church group to use its facilities after-hours, and I read some similar piece about parents of an atheist student going to court on the grounds that hearing the words “God” or “Jesus” at a graduation speech would have an unbearable effect on him, so what can the school do? If they allowed this young man to testify (which basically seems what he wanted to do), some other parent or even outside group would have been turning the lawyers on them before the gowns were taken off.

  • Jerry

    One thing I’ve not seen so far is any mention about what should be in such a graduation speech and I think that is a missing piece of the story, albeit one not directly religious. So I did some research on the internet and found that typically the speech should be a “We” rather than “I” speech emphasizing the experiences of the class. This was emphasized by the advice I found to share the speech draft with classmates and listen to their feedback.

    Reading the speech itself he does in deed follow that in the first half. So to me the story should have provided the additional perspective of what a good speech looks like.

  • Matt

    Right. And Gearwar was the valedictorian, meaning he was the highest-ranked student at the school. That does not mean that he was an official of the school.

    But being the valedictorian does not give him an unassailable right to speak at the graduation. That is at the school’s discretion. Therefore, by providing him with a platform, the school bears some responsibility for what he says. The Establishment Clause is relevant in this case.

    “It is a fine line here. Here’s freedom of speech and here’s separation of church and state,” Fair Haven Union High School principal Brett Blanchard said. “The line is generally the difference between proselytizing and personalizing.”

    This is actually a very insightful comment. The principal is saying that the school’s problem was not with a simple mention of God being important in the student’s life. Reading the entire speech (available here), it seems to me that the censored portion can be effectively summed up as “I am happy and fulfilled because I am a Christian.” I can certainly see how this would be problematic. In the words of Justice O’Connor, it “sends a message to nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.”

    Imagine that your high school was in Iran and the valedictorian speech at your graduation extolled the role of Islam as the only road to happiness and fulfillment in life. I think it is clear that this would not be a comfortable experience for a Christian, especially given the backdrop of Islam’s dominance of the culture and your less-than-secure status as a religious minority. Should not our nation, which believes in both religious liberty and democracy, do better?

  • Ted

    I would be perfectly fine if the valedictorian was Muslim and got up to talk about Islam.

    Part of the high school graduation ceremony is to give the valedictorian the right to make a speech. As I said before, if we are going to neuter that speech so it does not actually reflect the person of the valedictorian than why have it?

    No their free speech is being deeply infringed upon, as they are being forced to portray and convey (in the absence of what they are allowed to say) something that this not true. This is not something that would be done to others, so it is an infringement upon their constitutional right of free speech and exercise of their religion.

    Also as I said before, if you can tell me how an 18 year old saying how they love Jesus is the government establishing religion than I am all ears. But to say someone is captive to the free speech of another is just absurd. Then can always leave, plug their ears, or just ignore them. This is much to broad to use the establishment clause as it was intended to prevent a state sponsored church, or even things like school prayer. A private citizen speaking about their beliefs and values, was never what the establishment clause was intended to prevent.

  • Matt

    I would be perfectly fine if the valedictorian was Muslim and got up to talk about Islam.

    Ted, that is easy for you to say when you live in a culture where your own religion is historically and culturally dominant.

    Also as I said before, if you can tell me how an 18 year old saying how they love Jesus is the government establishing religion than I am all ears.

    The 18-year-old is standing on a platform provided by the government. That’s all there is to it.

  • CarlH

    Some of the discussion in the comments here demonstrates precisely why the suggestion that more discussion of the competing legal issues might help make the article helpful rather than just “inciteful” (in either direction, it would appear).

    The 18-year-old is standing on a platform provided by the government. That’s all there is to it.

    Matt, I may be missing some nuance of your point. But from my benighted perspective, this statement seems to stand free speech jurisprudence and the concept of a “public forum” on its head–and precisely because we are considering “religious speech” here. (But maybe that’s because it fits neatly into my personal preconceived notion that people who might wish to scrub all religious content from public space really want to have things both ways.) As I understand Free Speech precedent, the concept of a public forum is what PRECLUDES government from imposing content-related restrictions on the speech (and is used regularly to insist that speech of virtually every other type must be tolerated by anyone who might be offended by it–see the recent decision on the Westboro funeral protests as only one example–and, somewhat uncharacteristically, that message is explicitly “religious” in both content and context). As I dimly perceive the confused state of Establishment Clause precedent (which, somewhat ironically I think, tries to pass for legal “doctrine”), the question is not that the forum is public or government-provided but whether or not there is an inappropriate government imprimatur (approval or disapproval of the particularly religious content in preference to or by exclusion of other perspective) or the dreaded “coercion” (which proved the death-knell for public high school graduation prayers). Imprimatur or coercion may (or may not) be found because of the occasion, the context, the audience, or almost any other number of factors. Unfortunately (in my opinion), such an amorphous analysis tends to produce results in which the “standard” tends to be “met” by a court filling an opinion with whatever quantum of evidence, assumptions and presumptions that the particular court finds sufficient to find in favor of the position that makes the court feel most Solomon-like (oops another religious reference) under the circumstances and for which it can cite sufficient analogous precedent (or dicta) that may be enough to being overturned on appeal or excoriated in the law reviews.

  • Matt

    Carl, you are correct that I did not mean to say that the state owns the physical platform on which the speaker stands, but rather than he is speaking with an implicit government imprimatur (metaphorically, “platform”). It would be different if he were speaking at his private graduation party. It would also be different if he were speaking at a government-sponsored forum on religion at which a variety of viewpoints were represented (cf. the NPR example above). But in this case, he is speaking as a representative of the school to an audience assembled for a school function.

    You are also correct that EC case law is confused, largely because the balance that needs to be struck is difficult.

  • Ted

    He is not a representative of the school nor is he establishing a religion.

    If any mention of God or one’s personal views have to be censored in the public square than we have completely lost the meaning of free speech.

    This is an individual that the school has invited, due to his merit, to speak on who he is and what matters most. The only thing he is “establishing” is what made him the valedictorian of the school.

    As I said before, the NPR example hold weight in your logic as it is a government platform in which people are talking about God. It makes no difference if there are a variety of religious views (must have missed that part of the 1st Amendment) if I am an athiest and want no religious views at all.

    As I said before, if you are going to invite someone to speak, then they have the right to free speech. There is no captive audience as everyone has agreed that whoever merits the role of valedictorian deserves to give a speech. If you don’t like this that is fine, but there is no constitutional right, unless you can show that a one time speech by a private citizen creates an establishment. For it to even come close to being established it would at the very minimum have to be ongoing and continual. I have never heard of any establishment that is a one time event.

    And you are wrong in your assumption that I would feel different in a Muslim country. I value free speech and if I happened to live in a free speech country where many of the valedictorians were Muslim and they wanted to give him credit for their lives, I would be fine with it.

    It is strange that we have modified free speech to mean, “I have a Constitutional right to never hear anything religious that I do not like.” Sorry this right does not exist.

  • Matt

    Ted, you are exaggerating. No one said that “any mention of God” was a problem; in fact, I quoted the school principal saying exactly the opposite (#11). No one said anything about a “right to never hear anything religious that I do not like.” You are making that up and then knocking it down.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Isn’t religious speech supposed to be at least as free as political speech. Yet how many graduation or Commencement speeches given at public high schools or colleges by politicians have been harangues or verbal bullying on the latest popular political topic. But noone in the educational establishment would even consider demanding to vet Senator X’s speech for political propaganda (After all, politicians control public education’s purse strings.)
    For example, how many Commencement–or other graduation speeches and talks–will propagandize us, in one way or another, about global warming and how we will all go to environmental Hell if we don’t agree it is man-made. And how our new graduates must go out and solve this (or other “in” political problems) for future generations
    How about some media coverage zeroing in on the issue of the politicization on a “government platform” of graduation or Commencement speeches. (Frequently even choosing as a speaker a noted activist or promoter of a political agenda.)
    Such vetting would be difficult, but politicians deserve to have their speeches vetted and censored as much as a high school senior’s deserves vetting and censoring. That is unless we consider a young believer’s free speech less worthy of protection than Senator X’s.
    Religious speech should be no less free than political speech. Neither should depend on whether someone in the crowd doesn’t like the words he hears. If a person is afraid of what he might hear at a graduation, then don’t go. I know of no place where people must go to the ceremonies. Let them be victims of their own narrow-mindedness instead of the student the victim.

  • Ted

    No strawman Matt, just an unwillingness on your part to see that an 18 year old using his Valedictorian speech to talk about what is important to him, is not the establishing of religion. Do better, bud.

  • Ted

    And yet I also did not see any complaints or outcries of establishment violations when Obama and others from his administration got up at the Arizona massacre memorial at UA and basically read big chunks of Scripture and waxing on theodicy. No less this was also on public airwaves.

    Wasn’t that an establishment violation? Yet for all these slippery slopes of establishment, I did not see Obama launch a government religion out of that gathering or any of the local officials for that matter. The Establishment Clause is being stretched beyond comprehension at this point, as to where and 18 year old kid can’t exercise free speech in public.

  • Julia

    In the words of Justice O’Connor, it “sends a message to nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.”

    This is the reason that Catholic schools were established in the 1800s. Catholic and Jewish and atheist students were required to read aloud sections of the King James bible in reading class and to otherwise deal in class with aspects of then-civil-religion beliefs, which were main-line Protestant. There were Blaine amendments that forbad Catholics from educating their children outside of the public schools. It was a big battle that should not have been necessary.

    I don’t think students should be “testifying” in Valedictorian speeches.

    Principals are in a tough spot. I’m not surprised they are using “bright line” rules. Nuance explanations just get the arguments going.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Is anyone going to talk about journalism?

  • Ted

    Julia it does not send the message that some in the community are outsiders and others are insiders.

    It shares the personal opinion and values of one person. He is not speaking on behalf of the school or any government institution. He is speaking on behalf of himself; which is exactly what a Valedictorian speech is supposed to be.

    If people do not want to hear what he has to say then either a.) tell him he is not allowed to be Valedictorian because of what he believes or b.) just do away with having the Valedictorian give a speech.

    The kid earned the right to give a speech about what got him through high school and what matters to him. As I said before the Establishment is a cop-out since a one time event by a private citizen is far from establishing state religion in any way.

  • Dave G.

    Always a hot button topic. So often because there’s what the First Amendment says, there’s what the SCOTUS says the First Amendment says, and there’s what so many people wish the SCOTUS really means when it says what the First Ammendment says. Hence, trying to get down to the unbiased conclusion will be as easy for the average journalist as getting down to the unbiased conclusion of which topping is best for pizza.

  • LittleDixieChuck

    I first read this story early, early this (Saturday) morning, and the thought came to mind: suppose the high school in question had invited President Obama or even Bush 43 to speak at the commencement ceremony. I wonder if the principal would have demanded to review their speech and excise any mention of God and faith. I doubt that he would. Then why should the student be subjected to such oppression?

  • http://socimages.blogsome.com/ Alessandra

    Among the many sentences that the school took offense to was this passage from Gearwar’s speech:

    “I have peace and can finally enjoy every moment God has given me, good or bad. I wouldn’t be standing before you without the blessings God has given me through my tough situations. He is the reason I am the man I am today, made new through Jesus death on the cross.”

    That is so offensive! It’s atrocious.

    “I can have peace.” How could he say that? What a horrible thought. “I am blessed.” This one is even worse.

    Really, I understand the minds of these officials. They should be lobotomized.

    I think this is absolute fascism. Americans are sometimes so deformed in their culture, they lose all notion of the most basic common sense. And, yes, ideologues mess with language and concepts, and, golly gee, how they deform it–no good concept is being upheld by this censorship move. This is blatant government censorship of a citizen’s right to speech. Absolutely ridiculous.

    I don’t care if the student wants to talk about how Christianity made him a better man, or Judaism, or taking a hike in Nepal, or being a beekeeper, or rejecting all religions or making pasta with olive oil. It’s his experience. It’s his right to express it and share it.

    I also think the rationale for censoring religious views in public schools is faulty. As long as religious people pay taxes, all views should be welcome in a public school, including religious ones. This is not the same as forcing students to follow one particular religion or to have just one religion, but so that teachers can speak about any religious viewpoint as well.

  • http://socimages.blogsome.com/ Alessandra

    I can certainly see how this would be problematic. In the words of Justice O’Connor, it “sends a message to nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.”

    Imagine that your high school was in Iran and the valedictorian speech at your graduation extolled the role of Islam as the only road to happiness and fulfillment in life. I think it is clear that this would not be a comfortable experience for a Christian, especially given the backdrop of Islam’s dominance of the culture and your less-than-secure status as a religious minority. Should not our nation, which believes in both religious liberty and democracy, do better?
    ============
    Personally, I think this is a ridiculous argument. Iran? Really, why not Nazi Germany? rolls eyes

    The kid’s experience is his experience, and as such, it is valid. It does not matter if there are more or less people in the community that share his views. If the school thinks that graduation would be better with more representation diversity, they could always invite 4 students with different backgrounds to speak.

    What if it was a kid who wanted to extol the wonders of basketball in his life? He’s pushing an ideology of sports which other people may not share, may not agree, even hate. And so? If other people don’t like basketball, they listen politely and that’s it. If other people don’t like Christianity, they listen politely, yawn, or leave, and that’s it.

  • tom c.

    People throw around the term “separation of church and state” often, but rarely seem to read the first amendment. The principal needs more education on the subject.

  • RichardR

    The 1st amendment says that the government may not constrain free speech. Despite Justice O’Connor’s opinion, free speech is precisely and exactly the freedom to say things that offend some people.
    So, we are left with the issue of whether having an invited speaker, or selected Valedictorian express religious convictions is the “establishment” of an official religion. You have to a bit daft to think that it does. What is going on is that people are trying to restrict speech that makes them uncomfortable by contorted reinterpretations of the plain language of the constitution.

  • Ted

    Alessandra, You hit the nail on the head.

    Do you think for a nanosecond that anyone would censor that speech if say he was gay and wanted to talk about his lifestyle? Of course not, this ideology would be allowed to go forth, and rightfully so.

    The bottom line is that trying to argue that a 18 year old private citizen saying that Jesus gives him peace and purpose is establishing a federal religion is just absurd. Yet that does not stop the PC police from arguing so.


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