… Speak no evil …

Denver Post columnist David Harsanyi hit the nail on the head with his recent column in Sunday’s Denver Post. His article, entitled “Student spoke up, school let her down” details the story of a young Colorado high school valedictorian who was denied her high school diploma because she spoke out and “introduced” the audience to Jesus Christ. As Harsanyi details in his article,

Corder was one of 15 valedictorians at Lewis-Palmer High School in 2006, all of whom were invited to speak for 30 seconds at a graduation ceremony. When it was Corder’s turn, she decided to introduce her audience to a celebrity.

“His name is Jesus Christ,” she said. “If you don’t already know him personally, I encourage you to find out more about the sacrifice he made for you.”

This, according to Corder, provoked the principal to deny Erica her diploma until she apologized via e-mail to the entire class for her proselytizing. She did so fearing a delay would hurt her college admissions.

Talk about prior restraint! Denying her diploma because she expressed her views and opinions about people loving Jesus. Harsanyi draws a correlation to the recent Supreme Court decision arising out of a case from Alaska cleverly nicknamed the “Bong Hits for Jesus” case. Or as we in the legal community like to refer to it: Morse v. Frederick, 127 S.Ct. 2618 (2007).

Now, perhaps the school administrators of Lewis-Palmer High School thought that in light of the Morse case, they could slap the equivalent of duct tape over Ms. Corder’s mouth. Apparently, they failed to actually read the opinion, and get some counsel before infringing on the First Amendment Rights of the students. Don’t misread what I am saying here. I’m not a big fan of the Morse opinion to begin with. But I’m also not an advocate of drug use. But the opinion does recognize some very important factors which went entirely overlooked by the school. But to put it in perspective, you need to understand the facts of the Morse case. There,

At a school-sanctioned and school-supervised event, petitioner Morse, the high school principal, saw students unfurl a banner stating “BONG HiTS 4 JESUS,” which she regarded as promoting illegal drug use. Consistent with established school policy prohibiting such messages at school events, Morse directed the students to take down the banner. When one of the students who had brought the banner to the event-respondent Frederick-refused, Morse confiscated the banner and later suspended him. The school superintendent upheld the suspension, explaining, inter alia, that Frederick was disciplined because his banner appeared to advocate illegal drug use in violation of school policy. Petitioner school board also upheld the suspension. Frederick filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that the school board and Morse had violated his First Amendment rights.

Personally, I see a HUGE difference between promoting drug use and promoting Jesus. Maybe because you can get “high on Jesus” the Lewis-Palmer officials thought this was a bad thing to be talking about. But the school officials had completely the wrong analysis of this situation. The Supreme Court opinion sets out such a decent map for anyone to follow and makes it clear what type of speech school officials can restrain. Specifically,

Our cases make clear that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School Dist., 393 U.S. 503, 506, 89 S.Ct. 733, 21 L.Ed.2d 731 (1969). At the same time, we have held that “the constitutional rights of students in public school are not automatically coextensive with the rights of adults in other settings,” Bethel School Dist. No. 403 v. Fraser, 478 U.S. 675, 682, 106 S.Ct. 3159, 92 L.Ed.2d 549 (1986), and that the rights of students “must be ‘applied in light of the special characteristics of the school environment.’ ” Hazelwood School Dist. v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U.S. 260, 266, 108 S.Ct. 562, 98 L.Ed.2d 592 (1988) (quoting Tinker, supra, at 506, 89 S.Ct. 733). Consistent with these principles, we hold that schools may take steps to safeguard those entrusted to their care from speech that can reasonably be regarded as encouraging illegal drug use. We conclude that the school officials in this case did not violate the First Amendment by confiscating the pro-drug banner and suspending the student responsible for it.

But asking the public audience to recognize Jesus? How does that even fit in the same universe as promoting illegal drug use?

If you ask me, the Lewis-Palmer School Officials owe the apology. I’ll be awaiting my email!


3 responses to “… Speak no evil …

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