Graduation 2002: one last lesson in freedom

Sunday, June 2, 2002

It’s graduation time again, and all across America, the traditional trappings are in place: caps, gowns, commencement speakers and, of course, lawsuits.

Graduating from high school or college is one of those once-in-a-lifetime events, and there’s tremendous pressure to make sure these events go exactly right — which may explain why they sometimes go exactly wrong. Few school events inspire as much controversy or litigation:

  • Earlier this month, a public school in Hawaii and the American Civil Liberties Union clashed over whether a young woman could be barred from graduation ceremonies if she wore slacks underneath her gown. The school’s dress code says girls must wear skirts or dresses.
  • A federal judge ruled a few weeks ago that the Lord’s Prayer may not be sung at an Iowa high school graduation. For 30 years, the choir at Woodbine High School had performed the song at the ceremony, but atheist students objected. U.S. District Judge Charles Wolle said the song constituted a government endorsement of a specific faith. “The principal effect of having the choir sing ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ is to advance the Christian religion,” the judge wrote.
  • Last year, the principal of West Brook High School in Beaumont, Texas, suppressed the speech of the class salutatorian. Joanna Li’s dangerous sentiment: “Have you noticed that now that you’re graduating, everyone has advice to give you? Work hard. Don’t forget who you really are. Persevere. Remember your priorities. The truth is out there. That’s all good and well, of course, but they seem to forget one important thing. Have fun.”
  • In California, Sacramento Bee Publisher Janis Besler Heaphy was shouted down by rowdy audience members at a December commencement when she raised questions about government policies and civil liberties in the wake of Sept. 11.
  • In contrast, students at the University of California-Berkeley complained when the commencement speaker selection committee, striving to avoid controversy, invited Olympic skier Jonny Moseley.

Much of the controversy and litigation could be avoided if schools remember that graduation ceremonies are conducted for the students and their families. Administrators who try to micro-manage student remarks or dictate what they can wear under their caps and gowns appear determined to get every last drop out of their authority.

On the other hand, students who boo or try to block specific commencement speakers would do well to draw upon their own educations, respecting the marketplace of ideas and the value of diverse viewpoints.

In truth, the First Amendment provides all of the guidance we need: Government (and that includes public schools) must respect students’ rights to freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Further, public schools may not promote religion. This means that a public school can give a student the opportunity to make commencement remarks but can have little to say about the message. If a student voluntarily incorporates prayer into his or her remarks, that’s perfectly constitutional.

With those guidelines in mind, the South Carolina Legislature this spring introduced the “Student-led Message Act.” The bill provides that a student selected in an objective manner can give a speech of up to two minutes that will not be edited or reviewed by school administrators. One possible objective standard would be grade-point average.

The Herald, a newspaper in Rock Hill, S.C., described the bill as a “back-door attempt to sneak official prayers into public schools.” But the newspaper’s editorial went on to point out that although the law may indeed encourage student-led prayer, there’s no guarantee that the top-ranked student won’t have a distinctly different message for his classmates, possibly “two minutes lambasting the school’s administration, singing bawdy songs or imitating sounds made by farm animals.”

It’s the nature of free speech to be unregulated, unlimited and unpredictable. In the end, that’s what makes the South Carolina initiative both palatable and constitutional: It gives students a voice and bars government from having the last word.

The irony of all of this furor about commencement ceremonies is that so few of us remember the details of our own. For most Americans, graduation is about perspiring in overly warm school gyms and auditoriums while one of the world’s least-interesting speakers drones on about our collectively bright future.

Yet that may be the most appropriate send-off of all. There’s nothing that says, “Welcome to the real world” quite so well as listening to uninspiring remarks while sitting in uncomfortable chairs.

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