Officials scrap plan to silence graduating senior

Monday, June 1, 1998

Officials at a West Virginia high school reversed an earlier decision and allowed a class valedictorian to deliver a speech that was critical of the administration at graduation Sunday.

Musselman High School Principal John Cole originally informed Erik Nowak and two other Inwood student speakers 10 days before graduation that their speeches were being cut in order to “streamline” the program.

Nowak, however, said he believes that the initial decision was motivated by a desire to silence his message, which criticized school officials for placing greater emphasis on athletics rather than academics.

“When Mr. Cole first told us that we weren't going to be allowed to speak because of time considerations, we didn't believe a word he said,” Nowak said. “I am convinced he wanted to eliminate the speeches because of the content of my message.”

In his speech Nowak said: “Do not misunderstand me. I am not condemning athletics. But I am disturbed by the position it holds in relation to academics. I do not place the blame with the participants but with those at the top of the organization, because in an organization, leaders are responsible for promoting the vision that leads to great achievements by its members. Academic excellence, and the recognition of it, should be the primary goal of each and every school in the country.”

Beth Nowak, Erik's mother, said: “We knew all along the claim of streamlining was a pretext. However, when school officials announced this past week that they were reinstating the senior slide show, which was about 20 minutes long, we knew their claim of streamlining was obviously faulty.

“Erik was not informed that he would be allowed to speak until about 6:30 p.m. on Friday evening. If he wasn't allowed to speak we were prepared to go to court Monday morning. We had signed affidavits and everything,” she said.

Both Erik and his mother credit the Rutherford Institute and its legal coordinator Ron Rissler for the school officials' change of heart.

Rissler said: “We definitely made it clear to the school board's attorney that legal action would follow if these students were not allowed to speak. This was a simple case of free speech. School officials attempted to censor Erik's speech because they disagreed with its content.”

Beth Nowak said, “Everything went very well at graduation. Erik received a thunderous ovation. I'm 45 years old and I wouldn't have pushed this as hard as my son did, but I'm so proud of him for standing up for what's right.”

For his part, Erik said he learned a lot from the experience. “Before this incident, I knew the First Amendment was there, but I really didn't think that people would violate your free-speech rights. I especially never believed school officials would violate the Constitution, which they taught us in school,” he said.

“I learned that when you stand up for what's right, most people won't stand with you. I also learned that the price of free speech sometimes carries a high price. However, I'm glad I did this and would do it all over again–because it was the right thing to do,” he said.

Calls placed to the principal and school superintendent were not returned.