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School district overrules principal who removed faith references from student's graduation speech

Principal said they were "not appropriate" in a public school setting.

Updated: June 2, 2021 - 3:39pm

The Facts Inside Our Reporter’s Notebook

Hillsdale, Mich. is best known for its private Hillsdale College, a conservative institution that refuses federal funding and maintained close ties with the Trump administration.

Its K-12 school district drew scrutiny this week for a different reason: blocking a valedictorian from sharing her Christian faith during her upcoming graduation speech.

The First Liberty Institute, a public interest law firm, sent a legal warning letter Wednesday to Hillsdale High School Principal Amy Goldsmith on behalf of its client Elizabeth Turner.

It included communications between Goldsmith and Turner, the graduating student, about the content of the speech she had written for the June 6 ceremony. The principal told her to cut language about "my relationship with Christ" and the reality that "ultimately none of us are promised tomorrow."

Hillsdale Community Schools Superintendent Shawn Vondra told Just the News in a Thursday afternoon email that the district is "committed to the protection and expression of First Amendment-protected content for students."

Principal Goldsmith had required valedictorians to share their planned speeches in Google Docs, where she left comments on particular sections.

First Liberty shared a screenshot of Turner's speech with Goldsmith's comment window pertaining to two paragraphs:

"For me, my future hope is found in my relationship with Christ. By trusting in him and choosing to live a life dedicated to bringing his kingdom glory, I can be confident that I am living a life with purpose and meaning. My identity is found by what God says and who I want to become is laid out in scripture."

The next paragraph promises that "trials will come" and "ultimately none of us are promised tomorrow, making it all the more important to make today count."

Goldsmith's comment warns that "you are representing the school in the speech" and the school must be "mindful about the inclusion of religious aspects. These are your strong beliefs, but they are not appropriate for a speech in a school public setting."

It was the principal's second substantial critique of Turner's draft, having previously told her to remove language pertaining to "death and living a meaningful life," according to First Liberty, which did not provide that draft or Goldsmith's full Google Docs comment on it.

After the second critique, Turner emailed Goldsmith Monday to say she could not "deliver a genuine speech" under the principal's directive to leave out her faith and avoid discussing "tragedy and death." 

She would not "write a speech that won't be meaningful just to check off a box," she said. "I believe it is celebratory to call people to a life of purpose and meaning and a call to action to live a life well."

Goldsmith responded that it wasn't necessary to "overtly" mention death and tragedy in order to call for a purposeful life. The principal cited "considerations of what the content and message should be at a commencement celebration and it's [sic] appropriateness for the audience."

First Liberty's letter to Goldsmith recounts a Monday conversation the principal had with Turner in which the student insisted she "had the legal right" to share her faith in her speech. Goldsmith allegedly told Turner that she "would speak on behalf of the school and the school could not make religious statements." 

The final comment thread in Turner's speech notes that the student has "added more content of a religious and focus on death nature," with Goldsmith asking her to finish the speech.

First Liberty's warning letter tells the principal that graduation speeches are private speech under Supreme Court precedents going back 30 years. Department of Education guidance from a year ago also informs schools that the speeches given by graduating students are "not attributable to the school" and can't be restricted due to religious or anti-religious content.

Given the principal's edits to Turner's speech and their subsequent phone call, "you are violating federal law," the group warned Goldsmith, giving her a deadline of Friday to back down.

While the school district can't talk about specific students, Superintendent Vondra told Just the News students "may elect to include statements of personal faith and expressions of religious views" in their graduation speeches. He confirmed the explicitly Christian language chosen by Turner was "absolutely" permitted.

The district is working with staff and students to "ensure any concerns are appropriately addressed and students' rights are supported now and preserved into the future," he said.

A First Liberty spokesperson told Just the News Thursday it had met with the superintendent earlier in the day, and he did not "take responsibility for the principal's actions, nor acknowledge any wrongdoing" when shown Goldsmith's edits to Turner's speech. The group was upset that Goldsmith herself didn't attend.

"Our client will speak at graduation as the Constitution permits: with reference to her faith," the spokesperson wrote in an email.

Vondra responded that he wanted to hear the student's perspective and "provide an open opportunity for dialogue" before investigating and resolving the dispute with "the persons involved." The principal is telling all 12 co-valedictorians about "their right to include First-Amendment protected speech, again, including faith and religion content."