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School district cites 'pedagogical interests' to censor 'very Christianized' valedictorian speech

Detroit area school officials make exception for student's speech following legal warning letter, describe censorship as "coaching."

Updated: June 2, 2021 - 5:41pm

The Facts Inside Our Reporter’s Notebook

A suburban Detroit school district is claiming the legal right to censor its students under the banner of "pedagogical interests" after stopping a valedictorian from giving a speech it deemed too religious.

Following a legal warning letter, Wayne-Westland Community Schools has however issued a "one-time, non-negotiable relinquishment of control" over what student Savannah Lefler could say at an honors convocation, its external lawyer told the student's lawyers at First Liberty Institute.

Still, there is no merit "whatsoever" to the public interest law firm's argument that the district was violating Lefler's First Amendment rights by excising religious content from her speech, Miller Johnson law firm attorney Kevin Sutton wrote.

It's the second Michigan graduation-related speech dispute handled by First Liberty in the past week. A school district overruled a principal's restrictions on a graduation speaker's faith references following a legal warning from the group.

Sutton's letter Tuesday mentions the more restrictive of two Supreme Court rulings on students' First Amendment rights, known as Hazelwood, which schools have often used to censor students

It lets schools exercise "editorial control over the style and content of student speech in school-sponsored expressive activities so long as their actions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns."

Some states have passed laws that protect students from censorship enabled by the 1988 ruling.

Hazelwood complicated the high court's Tinker precedent, which concerned students wearing anti-war armbands. It limits regulation of student expression to situations in which administrators can show a "substantial disruption" is likely. 

"What you describe as cajoling or censoring is more properly characterized as coaching, which is what educators do," Sutton wrote. To make students "globally competitive," John Glenn High School must "push them to connect with others by thinking beyond their own narrow interests."

Sutton did not respond to Just the News queries. Neither did Frank LoMonte, a longtime student media lawyer who led state legislative campaigns to limit the reach of Hazelwood before joining the University of Florida's Brechner Center.

“May God be glorified in the situation," Lefler said in First Liberty's press release on the reversal. "I’m thankful I will be able to share my faith in Christ with my classmates and pray that this never happens to another student in the future."

It's not a speech, it's a "sermon"

Lefler's honors speech, approved by the school's speech coordinator, mentioned Plato and Charles Darwin in her discussion of the purpose of life, according to First Liberty's letter to Principal Michael Wegher.

She also cited the Westminster Catechism of Faith, which says life's purpose is "living a life devoted to Christ," in her paraphrase.

Wegher instructed Lefler to remove the "very Christianized" portions of the speech because the school is a "public educational institution and must legally abide by the 1st Amendment."

Since Lefler's honors speech is an "official communication from the school," it cannot favor "one religion over any others."

The principal also said the school "must be inclusive and respectful" of the religious beliefs of other students and staff. 

Apparently already in consultation with First Liberty, the student pointed to Education Department guidelines that confirm student speeches like Lefler's are "not attributable to the school."

Wegher said he'd check with legal advisers.

Sutton's same-day response on behalf of the school district accuses First Liberty of repeatedly misstating the law and citing irrelevant precedents. The lawyer advertises himself as specializing in K-12 legal issues, with a particular specialty on transgender student rights.

The student's lawyers conflated an honors convocation with a graduation event, the former of which is "necessarily focused on academic achievement," he wrote. "The School District's pedagogical interests, already apparent in the larger graduation ceremony, are part of the undeniable fabric" of the honors event.

First Liberty told Just the News this distinction was "absurd." School officials met with Lefler and the graduation student speaker at the same time, "giving the same instructions about crafting their speeches," senior counsel Stephanie Taub wrote in an email. "The students were simply told that their speeches would be broadcast at different graduation-related events.”

Sutton said First Liberty drastically played down the "sermon" Lefler planned to give, quoting at length from a draft the student submitted that cites the Bible, wrath and holiness of God, and Christ's death and resurrection. It concludes with an altar call.

Nearly half this draft was "unmoored from any sort of academic or pedagogical interest" but was intended to "proselytize," Sutton wrote.

The district already deems itself a "closed forum" under which it has the legal right to "prohibit communication" by students. Sutton compared honors speeches to official student publications – the subject of the Hazelwood litigation.

The Education Department guidance cited by Lefler only applies when student speakers retain "primary control over the content of their expression," which is not the case here. The district has not "absolved itself of its responsibility to craft the message" of both graduation and honors speeches, Sutton said.

The public interest law firm notably ignored the Hazelwood precedent in its letter, the lawyer said, which grants it authority over student speech "consistent with its legitimate pedagogical interests." (Sutton left out any mention of Tinker in his letter.)

But since the district is showing pre-recorded video addresses from students this year in response to the pandemic, it will let her choose what to say, "provided it is not otherwise inappropriate and comports with reasonable restrictions on the speech."

Lefler's speech will carry a "comprehensive disclaimer," since this pre-recorded format is "more conducive" to the district absolving responsibility for its content than would be live speeches, Sutton said.

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