Student sues district for cutting microphone after preaching Christianity in graduation speech

NEVADA -- A valedictorian is suing school officials for cutting her microphone when they say she began proselytizing during her graduation speech.

The lawsuit, filed last week on behalf of Brittany McComb by attorneys for The Rutherford Institute, a conservative non-profit organization dedicated to the defense of religious freedom and civil liberties, charges that school officials' censorship of her speech violated McComb's First Amendment rights.

McComb, one of three valedictorians at Foothill High School in Henderson, was delivering a speech she titled ''Filling that Void'' at the school's graduation ceremony June 15 when school officials said she deviated from the pre-approved draft.

The speech, as submitted to the district, included numerous references to God and directly quoted scripture on two occasions.

Administrators, concerned that her speech might violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, made her remove specific references to Christianity. McComb agreed to do so, only to give the unedited version of the speech at the ceremony, which led the administrators to unplug her microphone.

McComb could not be reached for comment.

''In accordance with our school district procedures, students invited to speak are required to submit their speeches for prior approval,'' said Pat Nelson, a spokeswoman for Clark County School District. ''Divergence from the speech will result in [the microphone] being cut off and that's exactly what happened.''

But the lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court of Nevada, argues the district violated its own policy, which states that if the choice of a graduation speaker is content neutral and the district gives them primary control over their speech, their expression does not reflect on the school and cannot be restricted for religious or anti-religious reasons, according to the lawsuit.

John Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute, said he hopes this case clarifies and expands the First Amendment rights of students in school and during school activities.

''I think it's an important case because there's so much confusion around the country about what can be said by students,'' Whitehead said.

''This is a good case to get the courts to start defining what students can do instead of what they can't.''

In 2003 the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided a similar case, Lassonde v. Pleasanton Unified School District, in which it said school administrators were right to censor segments of a California student's graduation speech that were considered proselytizing.

In Lassonde, the court ruled that, since students are coerced to attend graduation ceremonies, the audience at such events is captive. Thus, allowing preaching in graduation speeches violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by forcing even dissenting members of the audience to proselytization.

Bill Hoffman, the school district's general counsel who personally reviewed McComb's speech prior to the graduation, said administrators were simply following the decision of the court in Lassonde.

''[Lassonde] requires us to do what we did, which is a month before review the text of the speech to be delivered,'' Hoffman said.

Whitehead said the facts in the McComb case are different from those in

Lassonde, and said the facts will make a difference.

''The visceral effect of this case is much different,'' Whitehead said. ''We attached a DVD for the court to see what happened at that ceremony.''

Whitehead said they are now waiting on the district, which has 20 days to respond.

Foothill High School, Nevada, news