As a high school teacher, I heard more than my fair share of valedictorian and salutatorian speeches.
Some were eloquent, some witty, some pointless and boring, and some filled with the usual clichés and little substance. During the ’70s, the speech themes tended to be anti-war and/or anti-establishment.
But what they all had in common was that, after a senior sponsor’s review and guidance to avoid vulgarity and prejudice, the speeches reflected the student’s right to speak freely. Many of the speakers mentioned their faith as inspiration for achieving excellence in academia as well in all aspects of their lives.
This is graduation month, the time for donning academic robes and mortar boards as friends and family look on. Graduates across the nation are sporting that “free at last” attitude after 12 years of schooling.
But for many high school valedictorians, a legal muzzle has been placed over their mouths. They are being silenced by liberal fanatics who are doing all they can to redefine the First Amendment as freedom from religion, not freedom of religion.
Angela Hildebrand, 2011 valedictorian of Medina Valley High School in Texas, wanted to speak of her faith, use the word “amen,” and the name Jesus, and conclude her address with a short prayer. She was barred from doing so by a chief U.S. district judge after an agnostic senior and his parents filed a lawsuit against the Medina Valley Independent School District.
The judge’s order also prohibited the district from including the terms “invocation” and “benediction” in the graduation program and prohibited speakers from uttering certain phrases that would offend non-believers in the audience.
Speaking at a press conference in front of the Alamo, Hildebrand said, “After all I have been taught about the freedoms of speech, expression, and religion in our country, I am disappointed that my liberties are being infringed upon by this court's ruling to censor my free speech. I have been looking forward to my high school graduation for a long time, and had hoped that it would be cause for celebration, not for conflict.”
The school district appealed to the 5th U.S. Circuit of Appeals two days before graduation night, and the appellate court overturned the ruling of the trial judge.
But this is not an isolated case.
That same year, a Vermont valedictorian was forbidden by school administrators from delivering his graduation speech in which he discussed how Jesus had changed his life.
“I was just sharing a story about my life and how it was changed,” said Kyle Gearwar. “And as an American, I felt I should have been able to do that.”
Gearwar had submitted his speech to the principal and the following day was summoned to the office. The principal considered the speech an act of proselytizing.
Among the many sentences found offensive was this passage from Gearwar’s speech:
“I have peace and can finally enjoy every moment God has given me, good or bad. I wouldn't be standing before you without the blessings God has given me through my tough situations. He is the reason I am the man I am today.”
In this young man’s case, political correctness won, and he delivered his speech with no references to his faith.
Last year, Gerald Molen, who won a best picture Oscar for “Schindler’s List” was disinvited to speak at a high school graduation in Montana. Molen, a former Marine and popular motivational speaker, is one of those rare conservatives in Hollywood. After he drove 90 minutes from his home in Bigfork, Molen was told by principal Tom Stack he wouldn’t be allowed to speak because he couldn’t expose his students to the views of “a right-wing conservative.” Stack’s decision was made without even knowing what Molen’s message would have been.
No doubt the censorship of graduation speeches driven by political correctness will continue. And as much as I dislike censorship of any kind, I could reluctantly go along with redacting Christian references from public speech if consistency and fairness applied.
However, I strongly believe if a student speaker is Muslim, for example, there would be no banning of religious commentary from his address. And any attempt to remove the mention of Allah, Mohammed, Mecca, Jihad, or Koran would stir up outrage from liberals who would wave the freedom-of-speech flag and the religious bigotry banner.
These days, freedom of speech is apparently a lady of random selection.
Mary Ready of Destin is a twice-retired English teacher and long-time area resident. Her columns are published on Saturdays.