by Marlee Tomlinson • 5 min read
Every year, students all across America celebrate the accomplishment of graduating—from high schools and universities to graduate schools. It’s an incredible milestone and marker in a young person’s life, and it’s why students are given the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to deliver commencement speeches that are personal, sentimental and incredibly inspiring.
Unfortunately, and all too often, school officials use what should be a time for celebration as a means to censor students’ speeches and strip them of all religious references. This is what happened most recently in the case of First Liberty client, Elizabeth Turner, who is graduating from Hillsdale High School located a little over an hour west of Ann Arbor, MI.
For Elizabeth—just like it is for millions of students nationwide—her success and her journey throughout high school is deeply connected to her faith in God, which she sought to share in her valedictorian speech:
“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.”
Last week, Elizabeth was told by her high school principal that her speech was “not appropriate for a speech in a school public setting.” The principal had a problem with the religious remarks she included in her speech, telling Elizabeth that her job was to represent the school, not use the podium as her own public forum.
Elizabeth expressed that she couldn’t give a genuine speech if she had to remove the spiritual comments reflecting her dearly held beliefs—and within hours of Elizabeth reaching out to us for legal help, First Liberty sent a demand letter to the school in her defense.
First Liberty’s legal team explained that Elizabeth has a constitutional right to express her faith, as a student’s graduation speech constitutes private and legally protected speech, not government speech on behalf of the school. The law and Supreme Court precedent are abundantly clear: students and teachers do not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate (Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Sch. Dist., 1969).
Within a day of receiving the letter, the school complied and reversed their decision, allowing Elizabeth to include religious elements in her graduation speech, adding another incredible victory for students of faith all over America.
Graduating to a New Level of Censorship, Chaos and Tyranny?
Graduation should be a season for celebrating, when students should be able to express what’s important to them and to share with others their achievements.
As a recent graduate of the University of Alabama, I know firsthand the excitement of such an accomplishment. I also know the struggles and the sacrifices it takes to cross the finish line. My faith was the cornerstone to my four years of college. It’s inspired me, carried me and equipped me to accomplish so much more than I could possibly imagine.
Faith is a large part of my success story, as I know it is for Elizabeth. And in a culture where censorship reigns and freedoms are being taken away, like never before we must continue to stand strong by our faith and beliefs, as well as to the principles of the Constitution.
The right to express our faith and speak freely is essential. It’s the bedrock in which this nation was founded. Without these fundamental pillars, it won’t be long until America “graduates” to a new level of tyranny, censorship and chaos.
In this graduation season, and the ones to come, First Liberty will continue to fight on behalf of students like Elizabeth. Whenever a student has been threatened for living out their faith at graduation—students like Josiah Bell, Moriah Bridges, Angela Hildenbrand, Brooks Hamby and Sam Blackledge, to name a few—our legal team has answered the call and delivered resounding victories for their First Freedom.
Like never before, First Liberty needs your ongoing support to help us confront the wave of censorship and repression that seeks to destroy faith and freedom for America’s next generation. Will you jump in the fight with us by chipping in with a donation today?