Brittany McComb’s legal battle ends at Supreme Court 5

JISHOU, HUNAN — Ah, but the wheels of justice turn slowly …

‘Way back in June 2006, high school valedictorian Brittany McComb, after agreeing to school officials’ changes to her Christianity-laced graduation speech, proceeded to use her original text anyway. School officials’ “rapid response team” quickly cut off McComb’s microphone, to avoid anyone getting the idea a public school was preaching Christianity.

Mayhem ensued. Well, mostly legal challenges.

McComb, who is now a student in Biola University in California, acquired the legal backing of the Rutherford Institute, which filed a complaint in federal district court alleging Clark County, Nev., school officials had trampled her rights of free speech and equal protection under the law. The court found in favor of the school officials.

McComb took her case to the federal appeals court, which found no reason to overturn the previous ruling.

Then she took it to the Supreme Court, where it died a quiet death. (Technically, the SCOTUS denied a petition for a writ of certiorari, meaning the Justices were not going to tell the lower courts to hear the case all over again.)

So, what’s it all mean? McComb’s attorneys claimed that Foothill High School, by attempting to cut off her valedictory in midstream, abridged her rights of free speech and equal protection. The courts (all three, basically) said, “Not.”

Here’s a recap of history. Foothill requires student graduation speakers to submit their speeches for approval. McComb’s was quite frank in its Christian message. (The text is still available.) Fearing her religious message would run afoul of the Establishment Clause, school officials required McComb to edit her speech, which she agreed to do.

Then, on graduation day, she proceeded to give the speech as she originally wrote it. Then, in an equally ethical and adult manner, school officials pulled the plug on her mike. McComb ignored it, giving an acoustic version of her message to the gathered congregation audience.

Blah blah blah — war on Christianity — blah blah blah — teenage crusader appears on Fox “News” — blah blah blah — lots of blogging — blah blah blah — lawsuit — blah blah blah.

In truth, high school students have limited rights of free speech. Previous court cases have justified such limitations, and while I disagree with some of their findings, they are precedent. McComb shot herself in the foot (unwittingly, probably) when first she acceded to the principal’s editorial suggestions (giving consent to being “censored”), then going back on her word and giving the speech full speed ahead. Even if she had objected to the cuts before graduation day, I figure she still would have lost, whether she was talking about Jesus, AC/DC (the band, people, the band) or shopping at the mall. If the principal says, “no,” and the school regulations are public record and enforced fairly, the courts will side with the schools.

It sucks, but that’s the way it goes. And that’s the way it went for Brittany McComb.

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5 thoughts on “Brittany McComb’s legal battle ends at Supreme Court

  1. Reply Margaret Redmon Nov 28,2009 10:59 am

    Hmmmm, I support her right to free speech, but then the students should have the option of leaving the premises, instead of having to sit through something they find "offensive". Cuts both ways

  2. Reply K. Murphy Mar 19,2011 4:05 am

    Below, Are a few court decisions that prove you dead-in-the-water wrong, my friend.

    Students do not check their First Amendment rights at the door of our public schools although it would appear that is something that might please you. A teacher in CA got himself in hot water with your kind of attitude.

    Lee v. Weisman; Jones v. Clear Creek Independent School District; Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District.2 All establish the rights of students to express both religious and non-religous speech that others might not like.

    “Where students have been granted freedom to compose their own speeches (e.g., valedictorian or salutatorian addresses, etc.), or even their own commencement exercise, protected student expression should not be subjected to censorship because of its content. In fact, it is a fundamental proposition of constitutional law that a governmental body may not suppress or exclude the speech of private parties for the sole reason that the speech contains a religious perspective. [FN24] To deny this bedrock principle would be to undermine the essential guarantees of free speech and religious freedom under the First Amendment.”

    Please, I do hope you are not one of those people who like to say, “I believe in free speech but…” What that says to me is that you approve of your speech but not mine.

    BTW, Did you know that the anti-christian ACLU was there at the ceremony also, breathing threats to the school administration if Miss McComb mentioned Jesus? That is a fact also, my friend.

    Physics teachers should not practice or interpret law. Try poetry instead.

  3. Reply eljefe Mar 19,2011 12:32 pm

    So, K., did you bother to carefully read the entire post? I was commenting on federal court rulings on this very case. The student lost. I am supposing the federal judges also referred to the same precedents you mention here, but for McComb’s specific case, drew different conclusions than you have. I didn’t make the ruling. They did.

    Perhaps it was because McComb agreed with school officials to expurgate her speech, then reneged on that agreement on commencement day. Had she pursued legal action before welching on the deal, the courts might have been more sympathetic to her discrimination complaints. I said this in my post above, as well. Did you get that far?

    You are correct in saying students have First Amendment rights in schools, but they are not free to say just anything they please. That’s why there have been so many cases involving this issue. There are no hard and fast rules. I know something about this, K., because I have been a newspaper reporter and a high school newspaper advisor. Being a (former) physics teacher does not necessarily mean all I know is physics. If you’re going to snark about my qualifications, would you care to show me your law degree?

    [“Physics teachers should not practice or interpret law.” Now, which of us is being judgmental here? Don’t I have free speech rights, too? Or do I only have them if you agree with me?]

    The fact is, I don’t believe I ever said McComb absolutely could not ever talk about Jesus or witness to her faith in her speech. Certainly other public school students have given graduation speeches mentioning their faith, and not run afoul of the Establishment Clause. I did find it inappropriate — and probably illegal — for her to use the speech as an “altar call” to exhort her fellow students to find Jesus, which if memory serves was the main problem with her address.

    If McComb and her school’s officials had bothered to check legal precedents, in all likelihood, she could have mentioned Jesus, Mohammed or the Flying Spaghetti Monster in her speech. But, because she was essentially representing a public school, she was not free to tell people her faith is the only faith they should follow. One of the limitations on a public school student’s free speech is the Establishment Clause; public schools cannot appear to be favoring one religion over another. The fact that she was a Christian speaking to a mostly Christian audience makes no difference. If you have problems with that concept, then consider your reaction if McComb had instead exhorted everyone to worship Satan, or become a Muslim or an atheist. Perhaps your support of her message would be different from what it is now.

    As for the school officials, they handled things badly as well. I have said this in earlier posts, if you bothered to read back that far in history. They were within their constitutional and in loco parentis rights to censor McComb’s speech. They were not within those rights to tell her to eliminate every mention of Jesus, God or the role of religion in her life. Simply put, they over-reacted. And it is a mischaracterization to accuse the ACLU of telling the school all religious references had to be stricken from the speech. Although conservative Christians seem to view the ACLU as a tool of the Devil, in fact the ACLU has actually defended the free speech rights of some Christians (and non-Christians), both in and out of the public school sector. As for an ACLU watchdog sitting in the audience waiting for the stuff to hit the fan, this comes as news to me. While it’s basically irrelevant to the current discussion, I’d still like to know what evidence you have of it.

    The ACLU did talk to the school officials. That part is true, but it happened before the graduation speech, and before they had their initial sit-down with McComb. I seriously doubt there was an ACLU lawyer “breathing threats” at the actual ceremony. If there had been, he or she probably would not have advised pulling the plug on McComb’s mike.

    Incidentally, the ACLU only springs into action when someone asks them to get involved. In other words, K., the accursed tool of the Devil only got involved because (a) the school called them or (b) someone else, a student or parent or teacher, called them. The ACLU does not initiate actions on its own. Nor does it lurk in the shadows like a tiger waiting for someone to pounce on.

  4. Pingback: Brittany McComb, 1st Amendment Rights Denied by Foothill High School in Henderson, Nev. | APC Freedom Messenger

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