Recently in a public high school somewhere in New England, the only white graduating senior and valedictorian claims that she was denied her constitutional right to give the graduation speech that she had originally prepared. She had wanted to include in her speech what it felt like being the only white student in an otherwise all black school. She wanted also to stress the importance of integration as an effort to erase racial tensions. Public school officials, fearing that her speech might be poorly received or misinterpreted, urged her to change the text of her speech deleting any references to racism and integration. The student succumbed to the pressure and gave a lacklustre speech which left her with the feeling that she had greatly comprised her principles. (
Similarly a recent Supreme Court decision dealt with an analogous issue. In
Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier
, 484 U.S. 260, the principal of a St. Louis high school objected to two articles that dealt with teenage sexuality and divorce that were to appear in the school newspaper. The articles were substituted with less controversial ones without discussion of the replacement with the student editors. The students sued the principal and the board of education. The district court ruled in favor of the school officials who censored the articles holding that the school newspaper was not protected by the first amendment. The school newspaper
was an extension of a classroom project and the principal had broad discretion to restrain student speech if it had “a substantial and reasonable basis.” On appeal in the Eighth Circuit the court distinguished the classroom from the student newspaper, and held that students’ first amendment rights had been violated. In 1988 the Supreme Court in 1988 in a heated debate sided with school officials.
How the graduation school speech will be handled by local authorities remains to be seen. The local Civil Liberties Union has already made an inquiry. How the issue will be resolved will be based on established constitutional cases that high school students will find exciting and resourceful.