As the school year ended and graduation exercises began, a high school salutatorian was stopped from delivering her graduation speech because it was different from the school-approved version. The student took the graduation ceremony as an opportunity to air her grievance on alleged corrupt practices in the school which was her barrier to graduating with a higher honor. In her defense, the student said she had requested several times for a computation of her grades – a request that fell on deaf ears. As a final and desperate attempt to get her voice heard, she delivered her customized speech, one the school would not have approved had it been subject to their scrutiny, for the obvious reason that it reeked of their dirty laundry.
Consequently, the school refused to release the students credentials required for her entry to college. What ensued was a courtroom confrontation, with the court ruling in favor of the student. While the court recognized the error of the student and the need to impose discipline, it also ruled that such discipline should not be imposed to the extent of destroying youthful dreams and aspirations. In order to avoid being held in contempt, the school decided to release the student’s credentials – under protest.
This issue made headlines in the local news, with mixed reactions from the viewers. Some admired the student for her courage to speak her mind, a courage made more admirable emanating from someone so young. Some criticized the move as out of line, made in the wrong venue or, in the extreme, driven by parental pressure to, not just excel, but be on the very top of one’s game.
Whatever the circumstances that drove the student’s course of action, nothing can justify the school’s action in interrupting her delivery and stopping her from speaking altogether. Aside from the deprivation of the constitutional right to freedom of expression, it leaves the school in a bad light because it leaves the public wondering what the student had to say – what could be so terrible that it should be swept under the rug? The court interpreted the refusal to release the student’s credentials as a form of discipline. It could also qualify as an act of vengeance against someone who has had enough of the limitations autocratically imposed. What other description is there for a situation where you are allowed to speak, but only if you say what is favorable to the authorities? It’s really no different from a kid who gets grounded for answering back to parents.
Just like any other right, freedom of expression has it’s limitations. It may be curved if there is a clear and present danger that is sought to be avoided, a dangerous evil that authorities have the obligation to protect the public against. Exactly what is the clear and present danger that can come out of a graduating speech that the school can justify it’s prevention? Or is the school planning to further argue that they don’t need a justification because the student, as a minor,has no legal personality to go to court and assert her right? Let the response to this feeling almighty institution be: freedom of expression is NOT for adults only.