Michigan school makes exception for student speech containing religious content

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John Glenn High School in Michigan is standing by its concerns about a valedictorian’s speech, but is allowing it to proceed with a disclaimer.

Fox News reported Tuesday on a letter in which the law firm First Liberty threatened legal action if the school didn’t allow a student, Savannah Lefler, to give her speech at an “Honors Night” for higher-achieving students. A response letter from the school district’s attorney argued that First Liberty misinterpreted the law surrounding student speeches but that the district would allow a “one-time, non-negotiable relinquishment of control” over Lefler’s comments.

“The video of Ms. Lefler’s speech will contain a clear disclaimer that the views espoused are Ms. Lefler’s alone and receive no endorsement or sponsorship from the School District,” said Kevin T. Sutton, an attorney from the firm, Miller Johnson, representing the school. “The School District’s flexibility in this regard is consistent with its educational mission of supporting its students, even when the coursework is completed.”

At issue were competing interpretations of the First Amendment, which broadly guarantees free speech and expression of religion, but also limits public institutions in respect to the establishment of religion.

Similar to another case last week, Lefler’s high school worried about the implications of a student offering a speech that might appear to endorse one religion over another. First Liberty cited in both instances Department of Education (DOE) guidance as evidence that students’ remarks were constitutionally protected as private speech. 

Sutton maintained that First Liberty mischaracterized the DOE’s guidance and asserted that the group’s argument overlooked a key distinction between honors night speeches and graduation speeches, which are mentioned in the guidance.

“This apparent conflation diminishes the meaningful difference between the events,” Sutton wrote. 

“The graduation ceremony is an event for all graduating John Glenn students. In contrast, the Honors Convocation is an event for soon-to-be graduates – with high academic achievement – to prepare their graduation paraphernalia and engage in related activities. Both events are related to academics, but the Honors Convocation is necessarily focused on academic achievement and celebration of same. The School District’s pedagogical interests, already apparent in the larger graduation ceremony, are part of the undeniable fabric of the Honors Convocation.”

He added that the school never relinquished the “primary control over the content” – phrasing used in DOE’s guidance. The edits weren’t censorious, he said, but rather carrying out the school’s pedagogical interests in regulating what turned out to be a speech with a lot of religious content.

Sutton’s response includes additional language from Lefler’s speech that was not included in First Liberty’s letter.

“How can we glorify God?” the draft read. “Well, the nature of God and man is simply different. God is holy, good and just. Man is unholy, bad and unjust.”

It proceeds into a lengthy commentary on sin, redemptive grace from God and Jesus Christ. 

“Seeing that man is completely unable to achieve perfection … Then he rose from the dead three days later, thus vindicating His holiness and divinity. This allows us to fulfill our purpose in glorifying God because we can now stand before Him blameless if we repent and trust in Christ and His finished work. May His name be praised forever!” it read.

“The above excerpt,” Sutton said, “more accurately depicts the substance of Ms. Lefler’s proposed speech. Nearly half of Ms. Lefler’s draft speech was unmoored from any sort of academic or pedagogical interest related to the School District’s Honors Convocation. Rather, it was an attempt to proselytize at a school-sponsored event, with the School District’s imprimatur.”

First Liberty responded on Wednesday, telling Fox News that Sutton’s distinction between a graduation speech and honors night speech was “absurd.”

“The argument made by the school district that a student’s Senior Honors Night student speech should be given less legal protection than a student speech at the graduation ceremony itself is absurd,” said senior counsel Stephanie Taub.

“School officials met with the student speaker for the graduation ceremony (the class president) at the same time as Savannah, giving the same instructions about crafting their speeches. The students were simply told that their speeches would be broadcast at different graduation-related events.”

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