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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