Salutatorian's free-speech suit tossed by federal appeals panel

By The Associated Press
02.21.03

SAN FRANCISCO — A federal appeals panel has dismissed a free-speech lawsuit brought by a former Pleasanton high school salutatorian who was barred from proselytizing during his 1999 graduation speech.

A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Feb. 19 upheld a lower court's dismissal of the Amador Valley High senior's suit. The San Francisco-based appeals court said schools are constitutionally barred from endorsing religion.

Citing a string of cases, the court unanimously ruled that "permitting a proselytizing speech at a public school's graduation ceremony would amount to coerced participation in a religious practice."

Allowing student Nicholas Lassonde to preach his Christian faith, the court added, could force students to "feel that there is no choice but to participate in the proselytizing in order to attend high school graduation."

Lassonde was granted permission to hand out an unedited version of his speech outside the Alameda County fairgrounds, where the graduation ceremony took place.

The case is Lassonde v. Pleasanton Unified School District, 01-17226.