Religious speech cut from graduation ceremony

By The Associated Press

LAS VEGAS — The Clark County School District and free-speech advocates are defending school officials' decision to cut short a high school valedictorian's commencement speech, saying the speech would have amounted to school-sponsored proselytizing.

Officials and a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union said on June 16 that administrators followed federal law when they cut the microphone on Foothill High School valedictorian Brittany McComb as she began deviating from a preapproved speech and reading from a version that mentioned God and contained biblical references.

"There should be no controversy here," ACLU lawyer Allen Lichtenstein said. "It's important for people to understand that a student was given a school-sponsored forum by a school and therefore, in essence, it was a school-sponsored speech."

Administrators who vetted an early draft of McComb's speech cut six references to God or Christ, and omitted two biblical references. They also deleted a detailed reference to the crucifixion of Christ.

McComb said she defied school authorities because she believed it was free-speech issue.

"I went through four years of school at Foothill and they taught me logic and they taught me freedom of speech," McComb told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. "God's the biggest part of my life. Just like other valedictorians thank their parents, I wanted to thank my Lord and savior."

Administrators' decision drew jeers from the nearly 400 graduates and their families gathered for the June 15 ceremony at a Las Vegas casino.

Lichtenstein said 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decisions in 2000 and 2003 support the school's position.

The Clark County School District speech regulations prohibit district officials from organizing a prayer at graduation or selecting speakers for such events in a manner that favors religious speech or a prayer.

The policy does allow for religious expression at school ceremonies and says speakers chosen "on the basis of genuinely neutral, evenhanded criteria" are responsible for the content of their expression and "it may not be restricted because of its religious (or anti-religious) content."

District lawyer Bill Hoffman said the regulation allows students to talk about religion, but speeches can't cross the line into the realm of preaching.

"We encourage people to talk about religion and the impact on their lives. But when that discussion crosses over to become proselytizing, then we to tell students they can't do that," Hoffman said.

McComb, who said she plans to study journalism at Biola University, a private Christian school in La Mirada, Calif., doesn't believe she was preaching.

"People aren't stupid and they know we have freedom of speech and the district wasn't advocating my ideas," McComb said. "Those are my opinions. It's what I believe."