A Michigan high school senior who was selected as a valedictorian of her graduating class was told by her principal that she could not discuss her faith in Jesus Christ in her graduation speech on June 6.
Hillsdale High School principal Amy Goldsmith initially criticized senior Elizabeth Turner’s graduation speech for “anything associated with death and living a meaningful life, commenting that ‘a commencement ceremony is literally about new beginnings, not endings,” First Liberty Institute, which is representing Turner, claims.
In a letter to Goldsmith, First Liberty noted that Turner altered her original version and included these two paragraphs:
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. My identity is found by what God says and who I want to become is laid out in scripture.
Whether we want to admit it or not, not one of us can be certain of how our lives will unfold, but we do know that trials will come. The reality of this is that we face an unpredictable future, and while we are making all these plans to prepare, ultimately none of us are promised tomorrow, making it all the more important to make today count.
First Liberty noted that on May 24, 2021, Goldsmith highlighted the two paragraphs, adding this comment:
This is better and you fixed the language, but 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.
That prompted Turner to reply in an email:
I read your comments and unfortunately I don’t think I would be able to deliver a genuine speech under those circumstances. I don’t agree that we should avoid the topic of tragedy and death because that is a part of everyone’s future. I understand what you are saying, but for me, this is a time for my peers and I to evaluate our lives and to choose how we want to live since we’re not promised tomorrow and I don’t want to write a speech that won’t be meaningful just to check off the box. I believe it is celebratory to call people to a life of purpose and meaning and a call to action to live a life well.
Goldsmith answered in part, “While there is a degree of freedom to the content of your speech, there are also considerations of what the content and message should be at a commencement celebration and it’s [sic] appropriateness for the audience.”
First Liberty told the principal in a letter dated May 26, “That day, during a conversation between you and Ms. Turner, Ms. Turner expressed confusion by your comments about sharing her faith because she believed she had the legal right to do so. You told her that as a valedictorian, she would speak on behalf of the school and the school could not make religious statements.”
First Liberty stated:
Student graduation speeches constitute private speech, not government speech, and private speech is not subject to the Establishment Clause. Contrary to your statements that religious sentiments are “not appropriate for a speech in a school public setting,” Ms. Turner’s statements do not transform into government speech simply because they are delivered in a public setting or to a public audience.
Where students or other private graduation speakers are selected on the basis of genuinely content-neutral, evenhanded criteria and retain primary control over the content of their expression, however, that expression is not attributable to the school and therefore may not be restricted because of its religious (or anti-religious) content and may include prayer. By contrast, where school officials determine or substantially control the content of what is expressed, such speech is attributable to the school and may not include prayer or other specifically religious (or anti-religious) content. To avoid any mistaken perception that a school endorses student speech that is not in fact attributable to the school, school officials may make appropriate, neutral disclaimers to clarify that such speech (whether religious or nonreligious) is the speaker’s and not the school’s speech.
Hillsdale High School must comply with the law by allowing private student religious expression during graduation. By doing so, it will teach students that the government should treat religion neutrally. Any perceived danger in students seeing their classmates engaging in religious expression, including prayer, is no greater than the danger in students seeing religion banned from public view.
UPDATE: On Thursday, WCSR reported that Hillsdale Schools Superintendent Shawn Vondra met with Turner, her family and her legal representative and informed her that the school would “in no way inhibit Turner’s First Amendment rights to free speech.” WCSR reports:
Hillsdale Schools Superintendent Shawn Vondra had a meeting with Elizabeth Turner, her family and legal representative this morning and affirmed that Elizabeth could deliver her speech the way she wanted. Vondra told WCSR news that Hillsdale Schools would in no way inhibit Turner’s First Amendment rights to free speech.
Turner’s representative Keisha Russell told WCSR news following the meeting that Turner would be able to deliver the speech, including references to her religious faith, in the way she originally planned. Russell indicated that Turner and her family were hoping that school officials would acknowledge that they originally tried to censor the speech. Russell disputed the school’s position that Principal Amy Goldsmith’s edits were just suggestions. She told WCSR News, “The school’s comments are there in black and white. Elizabeth was told that her speech was not appropriate for a public school commencement. We just want the school to acknowledge the mistake and to ensure that something like this won’t happen in the future.”
Turner’s attorney said that she did not expect any litigation as a result of the incident and that while Turner reserves the right to tell her story if contacted, she has no plans to seek further publicity on the matter.
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