Nevada graduation brouhaha, part II

As the news coverage of Brittany McComb’s defiance of school authority spreads across the ‘net, I have been able to get a fuller picture of this young woman and a better idea of her motivations.

Brittany McComb (c) 2006 Las Vegas Review-JournalFor one thing, it is clear that McComb (pictured at right, Photo by K.M. Cannon, (c) 2006 Las Vegas Review Journal) is deeply religious and devoted to her Lord and Savior. For another, it is also clear that the school administration told her that, if she defied their censoring of her valedictory, they would cut off her mike. I base my conclusions on her own MySpace page and on a report on the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

Now the issue with her address is that the officials of Foothill HIgh School of Henderson, Nevada, believed her speech was overly religious, to the point of proselytizing. They edited out several references to God, Jesus and Biblical quotations, fearing that the speech as written would run the school afoul of the separation of church and state (the establishment clause).

According to the Review Journal, they advised McComb that if she read her original, unedited speech, they would cut her speech short. If she acknowledged that advice, she was in effect complying with a “gentleman’s agreement” to comply with the officials’ decisions.

Well, in fact, she did not comply, and gave her speech as she had written it, prompting the now famous decision of the school to cut off her mike, causing a public outcry from the graduation assembly and a subsequent media storm. The result was an amplification of what the school officials had feared originally, and the creation of a new darling of the religious right.

[McComb appeared on Fox News’ Hannity and Colmes program. You can check out the video clip here. Both Hannity and Colmes supported her decision, though Hannity as usual took the opportunity to repeat the Right’s “war on Christianity” meme.]

McComb told reporters afterward that she based her decision to give the original address on the First Amendment right of free expression. She wanted, she said, to express her love for and gratitude to God and Jesus. Her MySpace page (the part I can see without being a MySpace member) corroborates her devotion and sincerity on that issue. She in fact will attend an evangelical Christian university in the fall.
My question now, despite my previous support of her decision, is to whether McComb wanted to merely convey her devotion and just witness to her faith. Within those parameters, as I understand her school’s rules, she would have been protected by them as well as the freedom of expression. If she, however, was using this opportunity to preach to the assembly, to give a sermon, then she would have run afoul of both the school’s rules and the establishment clause. Did she in fact decide to advance Christianity in defiance of secular authority?

Her address was at a school-sponsored event, following a school-sponsored evaluation of her talk, and represented in some way not only her own views, but also those of the school. In that regard, given her acquiescence to both the editing process and acknowledgment of the possible consequences of defiance, she was tacitly agreeing the valedictory represented the school as well as her individually.

In other words, if she was intent on defending her free-speech rights, the time to object to the censorship would have been before the graduation, not at the event itself. Now, it seems her decision to defy authority was religiously motivated, which undercuts her free-speech argument and supports the school’s decision to edit her text.

If this issue goes to court, it should make for a very interesting case, because the judge is sure to focus on the motivations of both McComb and the school’s officials when deciding on the constitutionality of the officials’ actions. It may also help mature McComb’s own wide-eyed faith and understanding of the Constitution. Her case is not as clear-cut as she would believe.

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