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Valedictorian sues Nev. school for cutting off speech

By The Associated Press
07.15.06

LAS VEGAS — A high school valedictorian who had the plug pulled on her microphone as she gave an address referring to Jesus Christ sued school officials this week, saying her rights to religious freedom and free speech were trampled on.

Brittany McComb, 18, was giving her June 15 commencement address to some 400 graduates of Foothill High School and their family members when a school worker cut off the sound system.

“God’s love is so great that he gave his only son up,” she said, before the microphone went dead. She then continued without amplification, “...to an excruciating death on a cross so his blood would cover all our shortcomings and provide for us a way to heaven in accepting this grace.”

A video released by the conservative legal group backing the suit, the Rutherford Institute, shows McComb speaking soundlessly after her microphone was turned off while some in the audience chanted “Let her speak!” and stood and applauded.

McComb’s suit, filed July 13 in the U.S. District Court of Nevada, names the principal, assistant principal and the employee of the school in Henderson who pulled the plug.

McComb said she was warned that her speech at the Orleans hotel-casino would be cut off if she did not follow an approved script that deleted references to Christ and invitations for others to join the faith. But she memorized the deleted parts and said them anyway.

“In my heart I couldn’t say the edited version because it wasn’t what I wanted to say,” she told the Associated Press. “I wanted to say why I was successful, and what inspired me to keep going and what motivated me. It involved Jesus Christ for me, period.”

Clark County School District spokesman Dave Sheehan said district lawyers had not seen the lawsuit and were unable to comment on it.

School District lawyer Bill Hoffman has said previously that the school was following rulings by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that have obligated districts to censor student speeches for proselytizing.

Allen Lichtenstein, lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, said the school appropriately followed the appeals court’s decisions.

“Proselytizing is improper in school-sponsored speech at valedictorian graduations,” he said, adding the ACLU had sued in the past to ensure proselytizing was prevented at school-sponsored events.

John Whitehead, president of the Charlottesville, Va.-based Rutherford Institute, called the incident disturbing.

“If you know history, go back and look at some of the regimes that pull plugs, it starts with Nazi Germany all the way up through,” he said.

Whitehead noted this case differed from others involving the vetting of valedictorian speeches because the microphone plug was pulled as McComb veered into unapproved text. Students in other cases had accepted editing of religious content, he said.

“What makes a great constitutional case? Great facts,” he said. “Just what happened here is going to drive this case forward.”


Update
Nev. valedictorian can't sue school over religious speech
9th Circuit panel finds Clark County school officials didn't violate Brittany McComb's free-speech rights by stopping what court called 'proselytizing' speech. 03.25.09

Previous
Religious speech cut from graduation ceremony
Las Vegas school officials say valedictorian's address strayed too far into preaching. 06.19.06

Related

Valedictorian files suit in dispute over religious graduation speech

Erica Corder says Colorado administrators violated free speech by withholding her diploma until she publicly apologized for mentioning Jesus during commencement address. 08.30.07

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Ellery Schempp's 1956 act of civil disobedience is back in public eye, prompting new book on his landmark high court case and making him sought-after speaker on church-state separation. 09.03.07

N.J. principal cuts off salutatorian's graduation speech
Jennifer Chau 'was regressing beyond what we worked with her on, and that's the end of it,' administrator says in defending decision to end unapproved remarks. 06.23.08

Religious freedom isn’t up for a vote
By Charles C. Haynes Recent column on Kentucky graduation prayer draws reader ire; but protecting minority rights does not turn the minority into a tyrant. 06.11.06

When schools silence God talk
By Nat Hentoff As another school year starts, many administrators need a lesson on the meaning of the establishment clause (reprinted from USA TODAY). 08.30.06

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