Looking at America’s public schools, it is difficult to imagine that they were once considered the hope of freedom and democracy. That dream is no longer true. The majority of students today have little knowledge of the freedoms they possess in the Constitution and, specifically, in the Bill of Rights.
Public educators do not fare much better in understanding and implementing the Constitution in the classroom.
Unfortunately, instead of being the guardians of freedom, the courts increasingly are upholding acts of censorship by government officials. As a result, the horrific lesson being taught to our young people is that the government has absolute power over its citizens and young people have very little freedom. Two incidents come to mind to illustrate this sad state of affairs, both having to do with school officials heavy-handedly silencing student expression at high school graduation ceremonies.
The first incident involves Nicholas Noel, the senior class president of his graduating class at Grand Rapids Union High School in Michigan. With more than 1,000 people in the audience listening to Noel deliver his commencement address, school officials turned off the microphone when he strayed from his approved speech and referred to the high school as a “prison.” Noel said he described the school as a “prison” because it stressed conformity and students were “expected to act alike.” His message was that high school paints an incomplete picture of life for students. Adding insult to injury, school officials even initially refused to award him his diploma.
The second incident, strikingly similar to Noel’s, also involves a student whose microphone was cut off during her graduation speech simply because she voiced her personal convictions. Brittany McComb, the graduating valedictorian at Foothill High School in Nevada, was instructed by school officials to reflect over past experiences and lessons learned, say things that came from her heart and inject hope into her speech. Brittany adhered to the school’s guidelines and wrote about the true meaning of success in her life — her religious beliefs. However, when she submitted her speech in advance to school administrators, they censored it, deleting several Bible verses and references to “the Lord” and one mention of “Christ.”
Believing that the district’s censorship amounted to a violation of her right to free speech, McComb attempted to deliver the original version of her speech at graduation. The moment school officials realized that she was straying from the approved text, they unplugged her microphone. The move drew extended jeers from the audience, with some people screaming, “Let her speak!”
School officials justified their actions by claiming that McComb’s speech amounted to proselytizing. McComb disagrees. “I was telling my story,” she said. “And if what I said was proselytizing, it was no more so than every other speaker who espoused his or her personal moral viewpoint about success.”
McComb filed a First Amendment lawsuit in federal court. But on March 19, 2009, a federal appeals court held that school officials did not violate her First Amendment rights by censoring her speech and unplugging the microphone. McComb, who is majoring in journalism at Biola University, plans to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
She should not expect much help from the ACLU. Despite being a longtime champion of student expression, the ACLU actually condoned the school’s act of censorship. As ACLU lawyer Allen Lichtenstein remarked about the case, “It’s important for people to understand that a student was given a school-sponsored forum by a school and therefore, in essence, it was a school-sponsored speech.”
Unfortunately, the trend in the federal courts is to agree with this type of skewed reasoning. However, this type of logic will only succeed in eradicating free expression by students in schools, and the ramifications are far-reaching. Eventually, it will mean that government officials can pull the plug on microphones when they disagree with whatever any citizen has to say. Yet the lessons of history are clear: every authoritarian regime from Hitler to Saddam Hussein has not only unplugged citizens’ microphones but stopped those with whom the government disapproved from speaking.
Civil libertarians and the courts have long held that the First Amendment right to free speech applies to everyone, whatever their beliefs. This includes what many people consider offensive or deplorable speech. It also includes speech that persuades, as well as religious speech, non-religious speech or pointedly atheistic speech. Thus, unless we want free speech to end up in a totalitarian graveyard, no one, no matter their viewpoint or ideology, should be censored in any state institution.
Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Information about The Rutherford Institute is available at www.rutherford.org.