Striking all religious speech from schools not necessary

Sunday, September 26, 1999

Censoring religious speech by students may be legal, but is it the right thing to do?

Earlier this month a Florida student was told by his principal to delete a religious reference in his back-to-school speech. The offending passage gave thanks “to the almighty Jesus Christ” for bringing everyone safely back to school.

Rather than edit Jesus out, the student decided not to give the speech.

Is this kind of censorship by school administrators constitutional? Maybe. A number of court cases, including a 1988 Supreme Court decision, appear to give school officials a good deal of control over the content of student presentations at school events. This may mean that the Florida school could have allowed the speech but that it probably didn't have to.

But I would argue that censoring student presentations only makes sense when they are clearly inappropriate for a public school. No administrator should allow obscene, hateful or defamatory speech. The religious references at issue in this case are none of the above.

What's the counter-argument? Why do some administrators get out the red pencil when they spot God-talk in a student speech?

Primarily for two reasons:

First, some administrators are under the impression that permitting students to speak religiously at school-sponsored events violates the Establishment clause of the First Amendment because it imposes religion on a captive audience.

But student speech isn't government speech. While it's true that the courts are divided about the constitutionality of student-led prayer at school events, mentioning God or Jesus (or Buddha, for that matter) isn't exactly an altar call or an invitation to pray. As I understand current law, allowing students to speak about their faith in such settings isn't an “establishment of religion.”

And second, some administrators — including the principal in Florida — are concerned that religious references to one faith may offend people of other faiths (or of no faith).

Sadly, that may be true. In these hypersensitive times, many Americans are offended all too easily. And often their first recourse is to call a lawyer. But isn't the whole point of education — and of the First Amendment — to encourage freedom of expression in the marketplace of ideas?

As long as the student speaker isn't preaching a sermon or in some way coercing people, the school shouldn't allow a “heckler's veto.” In other words, the fact that someone may object to the religious or political views of the speaker shouldn't be grounds for censorship.

In the Florida incident, the student spoke in the first person (“I would like to give thanks .…”). He didn't coerce the audience — or even try to persuade them. He simply mentioned his religious commitment as an introduction to a speech about school spirit.

My advice to this principal (and to others tempted to censor religious speech) is simple: Don't overreact. In the spirit of free speech — and free exercise of religion — allow students to express their convictions. That's the best way to prepare students for citizenship in this diverse and often messy democracy we call America.