A recent Supreme Court decision to decline to hear the appeal of a public high school student whose diploma was withheld after she discussed her Christian faith in her valedictorian address may have resonating effects on religious speech throughout the country.
Erica Corder of Lewis Palmer High School in Monument, Colorado gave a 30-second valedictory address in 2006 that detailed the Christian gospel. As a consequence, the school withheld her diploma. They responded that the speech was different than the draft she submitted for approval to school administrators.
Afterward, she was told she must publish an apology before she would be granted a diploma. As such, she submitted a draft apology to school administration, saying her statement reflected her own beliefs and were not endorsed by the school. Then a school official required her to add: "I realize that, had I asked ahead of time, I would not have been allowed to say what I did." This approved apology was sent to the school community, and Corder received her diploma.
Corder sued the district, alleging that their actions violated her First Amendment rights of free speech and religion, among other things. In May, the 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled for the school district. The appeals court held that a valedictorian's speech can be subject to school review because school approval is a form of school-sponsored speech. "A graduation ceremony is an opportunity for the School District to impart lessons on discipline, courtesy, and respect for authority," the unanimous three-judge panel said. "And, a school district is entitled to review the content of speeches in an effort to preserve neutrality on matters of controversy within a school environment."
The court also rejected Corder's claim that her forced apology was a form of unconstitutional compelled speech. "If the School District may censor Corder because her speech is school-sponsored rather than private, then so may the School District tell her what to say when she disregards the School District's policy regarding the school-sponsored speech, as long as the compulsion is related to a legitimate pedagogical purpose," the 10th Circuit court said.
By refusing the appeal of that ruling, the Supreme Court has authorized public schools to compel speech that the school believes to have a "legitimate pedagogical purpose." The ambiguity of the language that was left to stand, could have a chilling effect on speech in schools, without further clarification in the courts.
It seems clear that a public school has the right to preview a school-sponsored speech and enforce rules for non-compliance. I would argue it is not a First Amendment violation, any more than requiring a public school teacher to deliver a scripted message from school officials to his or her students is a violation of the teacher's rights.
What is disconcerting and continues the court's bias toward neutrality in state-sponsored schooling is letting stand the phrase, "legitimate pedagogical purpose." By doing so, a public school could theoretically compel a conservative student to claim that evolution is the only truth for theories of origin. They could require a liberal student to affirm abstinence as the only legitimate form of contraception, if their message on condoms was too controversial. All the school has to do is meet the threshold of "legitimate pedagogical purpose."
This is another example why state-sponsored schools will never be able to allow students to freely express, much less cultivate, a religious perspective. Although metaphysical belief-systems pervade and color virtually every perception of a child, teachers cannot legally initiate religious speech because they are state agents. Neither theists nor atheists want opposing views presented to their children. As such, the harbingers of neutrality will always win in these battles.
If such belief-systems inform all matters of life, they are leaving academics a colorless lump of disjointed data by scrubbing religious and metaphysical discussions from academics. Even the attempt to develop rhetorical prowess results in little more than the mass-production of sophists, if there is no meaningful, objective ultimate truths that can be affirmed, tested, and defended.
To try to attach meaning to these god-less bits of data, results in vacuous platitudes that this ubiquitous tech-generation sees right through. That is why I contend that K-12 public education can never provide the richness of a classic, liberal arts education as can the private school. Once again, this underscores the importance of maintaining viable independent private schools, who can do more than administer standardized tests, and debase values to the amorphous "becoming a success" as the meaning of life.
Only the private school can fully address the ultimate questions, and weave a tapestry of meaning to the mundane. Is there an after life? Is there a God? Why do good people suffer? Why should I study the Great Depression? What is good? Why is racism evil? The meaning, interpretations, and values associated with these queries are only fully addressed in the hallowed halls of theological discourse.
As such, each and every citizen should place as a priority for the proliferation of these kinds of schools.