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CENSORSHIP! High School Salutatorian Brooks Hamby Won’t Be Silenced

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June 19, 2014

Liberty Institute defends student’s right to religious expression in graduation speech


Liberty Institute has been engaged to represent Brooks Hamby, a high school salutatorian whose graduation speech was censored by school officials THREE times.  The story made national headlines on June 16 in a FOX News article by Todd Starnes, and the very next day Liberty Institute’s Senior Counsel Jeremy Dys appeared with Hamby in an interview on Fox News’ Fox & Friends morning show.

“It’s just outrageous that a school would try to censor [Brooks],” Dys said in the Fox & Friends interview about the student’s graduation speech.  “Like this [his speech] is some sort of top secret document rather than to just let him express the religious belief that he might have.”

SCHOOL REDACTS GOD FROM SPEECH

When school officials at Brawley Union School District in Brawley, California told the 18-year-old Christian student that he could not reference God in his graduation speech, they rejected three versions of his speech—one in which one administrator even redacted (edited out) with black “censor bars” across all religious references.

On Monday of last week, Brooks was notified that he was the salutatorian and given until Wednesday to turn in the first draft of his speech, which Brooks had written as a prayer, including the sentence:  “Heavenly Father, in all times, let us always be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven us.”  After school officials rejected that version, he then rewrote it and submitted a second draft which mentioned the censorship of his original speech.  The school district also rejected the second version of his speech.

In a warning letter from school officials, Brooks was told that:

“The first and second draft speeches proposed oppose government case law and are a violation of the Constitution. . . The district is advising you that reference to religious content is inappropriate and that the two drafts provided will not be allowed.”

On Thursday morning, the day of the graduation ceremony, Brooks and his parents were called to see the principal and were notified by the school district that if Brooks “interjects religious content, the sound will be cut off, and a disclaimer to the entire audience must be made explaining the district’s position.”  After receiving this information, Brooks rewrote a third version of his speech, which he sent to the superintendent.  He received that version back with all religious references crossed out in black.

Brooks did not want to cause trouble, but neither could he compromise his faith and his convictions.  He wrote a fourth version of his speech and prepared to deliver it at his graduation a few hours later that night.

STUDENT BOLDLY STANDS FOR HIS FUNDAMENTAL RIGHT

In his address a week ago this Thursday, Brooks referenced the previous three versions of his speech and exercised his fundamental right of religious liberty by including references to the Bible and his Christian faith.

“In coming before you today, I presented three drafts of my speech,” Brooks said at his graduation.  “All of them denied on the account of my desire to share my personal thoughts and inspiration to you of my Christian faith. . . .  No man or woman has ever truly succeeded or been fulfilled on the account of living for others and not standing on what they knew in their heart was right or good.”

Amazingly, the school did not silence Brooks’ microphone but allowed him to finish his speech, though according to Hiram Sasser, Liberty Institute’s Director of Litigation, even the first version of Brooks’ speech was legal.

“It is outrageous that a government school official would demand that a salutatorian submit his speech for government review for the purpose of censoring religious speech.   Even in the Ninth Circuit, no government official may censor simple references to God that served as personal acknowledgment by Brooks of something greater than himself.”

In addition, Dys says:

“School officials are becoming more and more hostile toward the expression of faith by students.  Students and parents should never accept the legal advice of school attorneys in these kinds of situations.  Instead, they ought to call Liberty Institute, who has a proven track record of holding accountable school officials who want to censor the religious liberty of their students.  And the same goes for principals and superintendents—if they have questions about students’ religious liberty, we will happily consult with them at no cost to them.

HELP DEFEND RELIGIOUS FREEDOM

As the largest legal organization in the nation dedicated solely to defending religious freedom for all people—including students—Liberty Institute is committed to fighting opponents like the ACLU, Freedom From Religion Foundation, the federal government, school officials and districts, and anyone opposing Americans whose religious rights are violated.

Generous  friends like you have helped us take on cases defending students, parents, and teachers and their right to express their faith in public and private, including:


  •  Small Town Cheerleaders in Kountze, Texas – The middle and high school cheerleaders in Kountze, Texas, made a team decision to paint Bible verses on run-through banners at games—in an effort to share positive and uplifting messages with their football players.  Their inspiration signs were suddenly banned after the superintendent received a complaint letter from the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF). The district court found that the school district violated the cheerleaders’ constitutional freedoms and religious liberties, and granted them relief for that reason.   The Court of Appeals did not disagree with any of that.  While we are grateful we have won on behalf of these cheerleaders and their right to quote the Bible in their school district, the court of appeals ruling did not extend the same protection to future cheerleaders in Kountze and other school districts.  An appeal to the Texas Supreme Court is now under consideration.

  • Valedictorian in San Antonio, Texas– When Angela Hildenbrand—a model high school student and valedictorian—was threatened with jail by a federal judge if she prayed during her graduation speech, Angela turned to Liberty Institute.  Prior to Angela’s graduation, a U.S. District Judge issued a temporary restraining order banning prayer offered by anyone during graduation and threatened “incarceration” for anyone violating the order.  Angela wanted to mention her faith in her speech, but she didn’t want to go to jail, so Liberty Institute filed an emergency motion for intervention and request relief from the temporary restraining order.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit overturned the ruling, allowing Hildenbrand to offer a prayer during her graduation speech and permitting her to exercise her constitutional right to freely express her religious beliefs.

  • Longtime Substitute Teacher in New Jersey – Upon request, teacher Walt Tutka gave a Bible to a student.  But Tutka never imagined this simple act would create a controversy that ultimately led to his termination by his employer, the Phillipsburg School District in New Jersey.  Liberty Institute stepped in to help the teacher evaluate his legal options in challenging wrongful termination.  Tutka filed a charge of discrimination against the school district with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.  Tutka’s claims of religious employment discrimination are currently being investigated by the EEOC.

In cases like this—and on behalf of high school salutatorian Brooks Hamby and other students and teachers across our great nation—Liberty Institute is taking a tough stand against hostility to religion in our nation’s schools.  But to stay strong in this continuing fight to defend religious freedom in our schools we need your help.

Please donate nowto help us save religious liberty in America!  And if a public school attempts to censor your graduation speech, please contact Liberty Institute immediately for further advice and guidance.  

You can also find out more about students’ religious liberties—including their right to mention God in graduation speeches—when you download Liberty Institute’s “Know Your Religious Rights Kit” NOW.

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About Liberty Institute
Liberty Institute is a nonprofit legal group dedicated to defending and restoring religious liberty across America — in our schools, for our churches, in the military and throughout the public arena. Liberty’s vision is to reestablish religious liberty in accordance with the principles of our nation’s Founders. For information, visit www.LibertyInstitute.org.

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