Schools Can Restrict Valedictory Messages, Court Rules

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School administrators did not violate a valedictorian's First Amendment rights when they barred him from delivering a religious message in his graduation speech, a federal appeals court ruled last week.

The Oct. 2 ruling by a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco, came the same day that the U.S. Supreme Court set aside another appellate court's decision that upheld student-led prayers at graduation. The justices told the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in Atlanta, to re-examine a case from the Duval County, Fla., district in light of the high court's ruling last spring striking down student-led prayers at high school football games.

Lower federal courts have issued conflicting rulings about whether the election of a student speaker to deliver graduation prayers violates the First Amendment's prohibition against a government establishment of religion. But the Supreme Court's decision in the football- prayer case, Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, has cast doubt on the constitutionality of similar prayer policies for graduation ceremonies.

The 9th Circuit case involves a twist on student-led prayers at graduation: Do valedictorians, who in many schools get to address the graduation audience on a topic of their choice, have a right to discuss religion?

Two students at Oroville (Calif.) High School sued the Oroville Union High School District in 1998 over their proposed graduation speeches. Ferrin Cole was elected by his classmates to deliver an invocation at graduation. Chris Niemayer was slated to give a speech as co- valedictorian.

Both students submitted their remarks for review by the school principal, who expressed concerns about their proselytizing Christian tone. The students were told to make the speeches nondenominational.

The students refused to alter their speeches, and they unsuccessfully sought a temporary restraining order requiring the school to let them deliver their preferred remarks. A federal district court upheld the actions of the 2,500-student school district.

District's 'Imprint'

In its unanimous decision last week, a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit court also ruled for the district and its officials. (Read the 9th Circuit court's opinion, Cole v. Oroville Union High School.) The panel said the district's refusal to allow a "sectarian" invocation was necessary to avoid a violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment. The court did not consider the constitutionality of Oroville's student-election procedure in light of the Santa Fe decision.

The court said the valedictory speech was "a more difficult issue" because the district's policy authorizing such speeches does nothing to encourage religious messages.

"Nonetheless, we conclude the district's plenary control over the graduation ceremony, especially student speech, makes it apparent Niemayer's speech would have borne the imprint of the district," U.S. Circuit Judge Raymond C. Fisher wrote in the decision.

He noted that the ceremonies are held on district property, and that school principals have authority to review the content of student speeches.

"An objective observer familiar with the district's policy and its implementation would have likely perceived that the speech carried the district's seal of approval," Judge Fisher added, referring to the "objective observer" standard used by the Supreme Court majority in Santa Fe.

The lawyer for the two students could not be reached for comment on whether they plan to appeal.

In the case from the 127,000-student Duval County district, the Supreme Court set aside a 10-2 ruling in March by the full 11th Circuit court that upheld a policy involving a student vote on whether to have student-led prayers at graduation.

The appeals court had ruled that the student-voting mechanism had insulated the graduation prayers from identification with the district. But the high court's Santa Fe ruling invalidated a similar voting plan for student-led prayers at football games. The 11th Circuit court must now re- examine the case under the principles of the Santa Fe decision.

The appeal was Adler v. Duval County School Board (Case No. 99- 1870).

Vol. 20, Issue 6, Page 11

Published in Print: October 11, 2000, as Schools Can Restrict Valedictory Messages, Court Rules
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