Yet another graduation brouhaha

This tempest is not a local one, but from a school district near Las Vegas, Nevada. Class valedictorian Brittany McComb wanted to thank her Lord and Savior in her speech, but school administrators censored her text. McComb, believing she was protected by the First Amendment, gave the valedictory as she had originally intended, Biblical references and all. The administration cut her mike off partway through the valedictory.

As best I can tell from the sketchy news reports about the incident, McComb wanted to witness to her faith. According to the school district’s own rules, such professions are permissible, as reported in the Las Vegas Sun. She was not intending, she says, to proselytize.

The administration, for its part, did not want to appear to be favoring any one religion, and tried to censor the controversial parts out. School officials apparently did not consider McCombs to be a particularly spunky individual, or they might have expected her reaction.

Church ministers and youth leaders encourage teenagers to speak about their faith, to witness to the unconverted. So McComb had that motivation. She is also a teenager, with the usual adolescent resentment of authority. The school’s decision to censor her text was, in these contexts, ill-advised.

The American Civil Liberties Union is siding with the school on this one, believe it or not. Here is where I have to disagree with the ACLU. As long as McComb was not preaching or proselytizing, she was protected by the First Amendment and the school’s own rules. The school’s and ACLU’s contention that the valedictory address constitutes a school-sponsored medium, and therefore implies unconstitutional school support of McComb’s Christian faith, is bogus, IMHO. They, however, cite legal precedents in US Circuit Court cases.

This case is bound to end up before the Supreme Court, as it pitches two apparently conflicting legal protections — the freedom of speech and the separation of church and state — against each other. In the meantime, while I do not profess Brittany McComb’s chosen faith, as a believer in the freedom of speech I applaud her decision to resist censorship and defy authority.

The school officials should have left well enough alone — in some respects they have created a martyr — a martyr for both free speech and for religion. Talk about a no-win situation.

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