When eighth-grader Seth Clark submitted his salutatorian speech to Illinois school district administrators, he was told that the religious content he wanted to quote would have to be cut out. Experts are now saying that his right to free speech was infringed upon, because he was not representing the school.
“When you have a student initiated speech like this, there should’ve been no problem having the student have really any opinion that he wants,” said J. Tobin Grant, chairman of the political science department at Southern Illinois University.
In his proposed speech, Seth wanted to talk about “God-like forgiveness,” had planned on citing Scripture, and he also wanted to say a prayer.
Akin Grade School Principal and Illinois School District Superintendent Kelly Clark issued a statement, explaining that it’s really a legal matter. “While students are welcome to pray or pursue their faith without disrupting school or infringing upon the rights of others, the United States Constitution prohibits the school district from incorporating such activities as part of school-sponsored events, and when the context causes a captive audience to listen or compels other students to participate.”
Grant acknowledged that it would be unconstitutional for the school be to involved in anything religious, but he contends that there are different rules for a student’s speech. “[Public schools] can’t have a prayer. They can’t have students read a passage from any religious scripture or the Bible,” he said, adding, “But if they say, ‘Hey, you’ve got the best grades in the class… write your speech. Here’s three minutes.’ They can’t go through it. It’s a free speech issue at that point.” He was not speaking on behalf of the school.
Seth ended up giving his speech on Wednesday in the yard of a family friend who lives across the street from the school. Dressed in his cap and gown, Clark spoke in front of nearly 50 people.
“Them kids, they went through this they had their plan on that, that was the right thing to do in my opinion,” said Rickey Karroll, owner of the house where Seth spoke. “I think he has a right the right to give his opinion and he wanted to do a prayer, and last count I checked, we are still in the United States of America and it’s the right to freedom of speech.”
“Were his rights violated? Yeah. I think this is one of those things that happens when schools get sensitive that they are going to cross that line, so rather than do that, they try to pull back on stuff,” Grant said. “No one is going to think an eighth grader speaks for the school board. This is not a school speech. This is not government.”
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