Not just for newspapers

Graduation speeches, plays among other activities living in the world of Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier

Valedictorians earn the ability to give graduation speeches through their continuous hard work. They get the opportunity to close the high school chapter for their classmates and themselves. And while graduation speeches rarely cause riots or uproars, that hasn’t stopped some administrators from censoring, or even rewriting, the speeches.

Whether graduation speeches, poems, T-shirts, drama club productions or ‘I Heart Boobies’ bracelets, high school students have at one time or another seen all these things fall victim to censorship.

The door was opened in 1988, when the Supreme Court rolled back students’ rights in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier – a case about journalism that increasingly is being applied to student activities beyond the newsroom.

But some students are fighting back – and winning.

In November, the Montana Supreme Court ruled the Yellowstone County School District violated the First Amendment rights of then-senior Renee Griffiths when it forbade her from mentioning God or Christ in her graduation speech. The trial court had previously ruled Griffiths’ speech was curricular and subject to restrictions as an official message of the school.

Butte High School administrators left the speech topic up to the speaker. Griffiths decided to give her speech on what she learned in high school. The superintendent, after reviewing her speech, relayed to Griffiths that she would need to change her references to a deity.

While the district has a no-censorship policy for presentations and a disclaimer on graduation programs that student speech is solely that student’s, the district also has a policy forbidding references to religion to prevent the appearance that the school holds a religious preference. In addition to protecting free speech, the First Amendment – through its “establishment clause” – also prevents the government from endorsing an official religion.

In the 6-1 decision, the Montana high court said the school district “violated Griffith’s constitutional right to free speech because this matter does not fall within any of the three recognized situations in which it is permissible for school officials to impose a viewpoint-based limitation on student speech.”

Those three situations are based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District ruling and later cases applying it. As described by the Montana court, censorship is permissible only if the speech incites a substantial disruption, is part of an official school activity or promotes the use of illegal drugs.

William O’Connor II, Griffiths’ attorney, said the school district’s censorship of the speech “just was wrong. It was a clear violation of her constitutional rights.”

He said the easiest thing for a school district to do is censor student speech due out of fear of parental backlash, without taking the law into consideration.

“They’ve been doing this for years and it appears other students have buckled,” O’Connor said. “They could thank their Uncle Louie, they could thank their teacher, their parents, their dog, their track coach, but you couldn’t thank a deity.”

Despite winning the case, Griffiths gave up her chance to speak as valedictorian when she refused to change her speech.

“Several people have asked me why she didn’t just take it out and then say it [anyway],” O’Connor said. “She didn’t want to lie, which is against her religion, and she also believes in the First Amendment. Even if she didn’t get to speak, those in the future should be able to.”

‘Grown out of control’

The Hazelwood decision applies to “educationally justifiable” censorship of speech that is part of a school-sponsored activity or for credit. In the original case, this meant the high school student newspaper. Since then, Hazelwood has been used as a justification in countless court cases involving high school students in other contexts.

In one case, Pounds v. Katy Independent School District, a Texas elementary school tried to use Hazelwood as justification for forbidding an outside vendor from offering a holiday card with a Christian message as part of a fundraiser, though the cards would be delivered directly to private homes. The judge in that case decided the cards didn’t constitute Hazelwood speech.

In Nurre v. Whitehead, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided the Everett School District in Washington State was justified in using Hazelwood to prevent Kathryn Nurre from performing “Ave Maria” at her high school graduation ceremony. Administrators believed the song could be seen as the school endorsing a particular religion.

After the Colombine High School shooting, the school opened part of a tile-painting project in the school to community members who wished to use the area as a remembrance forum. The school prevented some slain students’ family members from writing messages with any mention of the tragedy or offensive or religious symbols, though a plaque in the office at the high school says “God Weeps Over Colombine.”

In Rohrbough v. Harris, a lawsuit challenging the Colorado school’s policy, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided Hazelwood applied, as the tiles could be seen as school-sponsored speech. The U.S. Supreme Court later refused to hear the case.

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said there are many students who would be surprised to learn their rights are compromised by Hazelwood.

Hazelwood grew out of a newsroom and it was always understood and contemplated that it would apply to student publications,” he said, “but over the years its application has really grown out of control to where almost any activity taking place in association with a school is classified by the courts as Hazelwood speech.”

LoMonte said while it could be argued that a theater or musical production on school grounds could be curricular speech, it’s difficult to imagine how individual graduation speeches or presentations are part of the school curriculum.

“I don’t think the reasonable listener hearing a graduation speech thinks of that as a curricular school function. I think they recognize it for what it is: the expression of the individual speaker’s opinion,” he said. “That’s why it’s valuable. Nobody would want to hear the valedictorian read the school press release. They want to hear that student’s individual thoughts beliefs and feelings and students ought to be able to voice those without the principal editing their thoughts.”

In Florida, editing of thoughts is quite literally what happened. Springstead High School’s principal, Susan Duval, rewrote 2009 valedictorian Jem Lugo’s speech. While no court case resulted, the St. Petersburg Times learned of the issue and published Lugo’s speech before and after the revision.

Lugo’s original speech included observations about the class, references to pop culture and practical life lessons. Her original opening said: “Springstead High School’s class of 2009. Look around you. This is it. No more essays, no more FCAT, no more required reading. We survived 13 grueling years of school, all for this moment, where we get to wear gowns that kind of remind me of a silk version of a Snuggie...”

The edited speech opening read: “Springstead High School’s class of 2009. Look around you. This is it. Ever since I learned what the letters GPA stood for, I have striven to be a part of this ceremony, presenting this valedictory address. Yet, I stand before you tonight, speechless.”

In a letter, Lugo, who is now a student at Harvard University, told the Times, “Graduation is no longer about the students at all. It’s about the school, proudly presenting another fine batch of perfectly acceptable programmed graduates to the rest of the community.”

Reading canned remarks written by your principal probably doesn’t provide the best educational experience, LoMonte said.

“I think, just as with journalistic publications, administrators sometimes want to dumb down school activities to the point where even the most delicate person in the world couldn’t be shocked or offended,” he said.

Svetlana Mintcheva, program director for the National Coalition Against Censorship, agrees. She said there are occasions when a principal will edit parts of a student play — the bad words will be cut out or outfits will be changed, for example — and “those issues tend to go under the radar because they don’t completely cancel the play.”

“There’s a lot of second guessing,” she said. “What might a parent say if they see their kid on stage saying ‘fuck’ or engaged in a play that has any kid of sexual reference? You could probably read it in class, but you can’t put it on stage, though we do have many books being censored for the same reasons.”

Curtain falls on critical play

A group of New York City students recently found their play cancelled for an entirely different reason – it was critical of an administrator.

The play focused on the school reform movement initiated under outgoing Chancellor Joel Klein. Principals from the two participating schools informed students in December they were uncomfortable with the play’s criticism of Klein and were pulling the plug, according to The Washington Post.

After a public outcry, administrators reversed their decision and rescheduled the play.

On the NCAC website, the group suggests that someone who finds a play objectionable “merely need not purchase a ticket to see it. Trying to shut down a production or threatening physical violence on any person involved is an inappropriate attempt by one group to suppress the viewpoint and free expression of another.”

Mintcheva said a lot of the censorship in high schools is aimed at “sheltering kids unnecessarily.”

“When a play gets censored, students learn a lot about free speech. They become quite passionate defenders of free speech,” she said. “They’ve been rehearsing and living with this play they probably now understand better than the principal or teachers. This can really damage the trust between the education system and the students. We want them to have the respect of their principal and their teachers, and if their principal respects them they would probably also trust their ability to handle challenging materials.”

In November, NCAC wrote a letter, alongside the Dramatists Guild of America, to express concern when Flagler Palm Coast High School in Florida canceled a student production of To Kill a Mockingbird, a literary classic that is part of the curriculum at the school. Administrators were concerned with “offensive language” and “did not want the students to be in the middle of a ‘highly charged debate.’” After widespread criticism, the school board voted to allow the play to be rescheduled.

Mintcheva said in a number of cases, students have found an alternative place outside school to stage a censored play.

That is exactly what a high school student at Lexington High School in Massachusetts did. Student-director Emma Feinberg’s production of “Columbinus,” which details the 1999 school shooting in Littleton, Colo., was canceled by school administrators. However, Huntington Theatre Company offered to let Feinberg show the play at Calderwood Pavilion in Boston in April.

They can handle it

Millie Davis, anti-censorship representative for the National Council of Teachers of English, said she thinks that while all parents want to protect their children, “some parents want to do that by putting their students in bubbles.”

She said some parents tend to think that if their child doesn’t read curse words or sex scenes, or even “something awful like murdering somebody, that somehow none of those things will ever infringe upon their lives.”

“People that believe that also believe that students don’t have the ability to read a whole novel and take that whole novel at its worth,” Davis said, “but rather that they will get hung up on a word on page 59, or a racy scene on page 78, and that that will just ruin them. They often see things as pieces rather than as wholes.”

She said most students are smarter than they are given credit for and, under the guidance of a teacher, can handle reading about controversial subjects.

“Kids are able to read those books and many others and have experiences through those characters,” Davis said. “Through that experience they learn empathy, they learn about the world around them, they learn about themselves, and those are really important things.”

The best way to prevent censorship in high schools is to work with teachers and principals, Mintcheva said.

“Principals are worried about the PR relationship,” she said. “They should realize that it’s part of the educational mission to have kids engaged in something that really interests them. The more principals and teachers have the language and arguments to stand up for the freedom of students to explore ideas, the better served they are in their own mission.”

LoMonte said he wants students to understand that the Hazelwood decision can affect them, even if they aren’t journalists.

“If they think Hazelwood is someone else’s problem they’re wrong,” he said. “It very well may be your problem and you may not discover it until Hazelwood gets thrown in your face.”

By Aly Brumback, SPLC staff writer

reports, Spring 2011