Why graduation speeches might need policing

Posted Tuesday, Jun. 11, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Editors note: This story has been modified from its original version.

Correction: A quote in the Tuesday editorial “Why graduation speeches might need policing,” attributed to former Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillén, was created by the writers of a satirical website. Its inclusion in the editorial was an error.

Here’s why public school administrators review graduation speeches beforehand:

“I had an abortion my junior year. Let me tell you what that was like.”

“This school did its best to suppress my ability to think critically, but it failed. As soon as I leave here, I’m going to find a way to blow up the system.”

“You want prayer in public schools? I say what they need is anarchy, the more the better. Legalize pot so we can sell it on campus.”

“Heil, Hitler. Viva Castro. Marx is my hero.”

How might an unsuspecting crowd react to hearing any of those remarks from a high school valedictorian?

On Thursday, when Joshua High School valedictorian Remington Reimer veered off the comments administrators had approved for him, school officials turned off the microphone — just as they had warned him, the salutatorian and historian that they would if anyone went off-script.

The episode has generated plenty of buzz because of suggestions that Reimer was censored for speaking about his faith. But video shows that the sound system actually went off when he said, “Yesterday, I was threatened to have my mike turned off. …”

That, school officials said, wasn’t in his approved speech and triggered their response.

Indeed, the graduation ended with a prayer, which underscored that Reimer’s invoking God wasn’t the issue. Still, the U.S. Naval Academy appointee seems to have made the free-speech statement he wanted.

The Supreme Court has said that students don’t lose their free-speech rights at the schoolhouse gate but also that officials need leeway to maintain order not just in classrooms but also at school-sponsored events. Texas law also recognizes this and gives school officials authority to set boundaries besides time limits.

If they exercise it awkwardly and video circulates stirring up debate about First Amendment values, that’s actually healthy for free speech.

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