A public high school principal and a valedictorian have reportedly found themselves at the opposite ends of a debate over purported censorship of religious expression.
The determined teen now has a law firm supporting her free speech rights.
Hillsdale (Mich.) High School senior Elizabeth Turner is scheduled to deliver her speech at the June 6 graduation ceremony. In one passage of her valedictory draft, Turner wrote, in part, that “For me, my future hope is found in my relationship with Christ. By trusting in him and choosing to live a life dedicated to bringing his kingdom glory, I can be confident that I am living a life with purpose and meaning.”
That language allegedly didn’t pass muster with Principal Amy Goldsmith who was reviewing the content and highlighted two paragraphs in a Google doc with which she took issue.
The principal reportedly told Turner that “you are representing the school in the speech, not using the podium as your public forum. We need to be mindful about the inclusion of religious aspects. These are your strong beliefs, but they are not appropriate for a speech in a school public setting. I know this will frustrate you, but we have to be mindful of it,” Fox News reported.
Some additional online back and forth occurred between the principal and the student about other aspects of the prepared remarks during which the latter reportedly told the principal “Unfortunately I don’t think I would be able to deliver a genuine speech under those circumstances.”
The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which applies to a government entity such as a public school, states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
Turner apparently reached out to the First Liberty Institute legal organization, which is headquartered in the Dallas area, and which specializes in religious freedom cases. The group subsequently notified the principal in writing to more or less back off, with a deadline of 5 p.m. on May 28.
“Student graduation speeches constitute private speech, not government speech, and private speech is not subject to the Establishment Clause [in the First Amendment]. Contrary to your statements that religious sentiments are ‘not appropriate for a speech in a school public setting,’ Elizabeth’s statements do not transform into government speech simply because they are delivered in a public setting or to a public audience,” the organization wrote in its demand letter, which also advised the school that it is allegedly violating federal law.
In a video embedded below that briefly summarizes the controversy, First Liberty’s media relations director insists that “Elizabeth’s First Amendment rights don’t stop at the schoolhouse door.”
First Liberty counsel Keisha Russell added that “Graduation is a time for celebration not censorship. Students retain their constitutional rights to freedom of expression from elementary school all the way through the graduation ceremony. All public schools should protect the private religious expression of their students.”
Pursuant to January 2020 U.S. Department of Education guidance, “[s]tudent remarks are not attributable to the school simply because they are delivered in a public setting or to a public audience,” according to First Liberty, Fox News added.
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