John Leo

Brittany McComb's microphone went dead at her high school commencement because school officials thought she was talking too much about religion. This was during her valedictory speech last month at Foothill High School in Henderson, Nev. The crowd of some 400 jeered for several minutes after her speech was cut off, but the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada thought school officials had made the right call. No surprise there. If the issue is freedom of speech vs. fear that a commencement speaker will imperil church-state separation, the ACLU will come out against free speech every time.

Officials of the Clark County school district read the text of graduation talks in advance and edit out comments they consider inappropriate. In this case, administrators deleted all three biblical references, several references to "the Lord" and the one mention of Christ. But McComb rebelled and said what she wanted to say. She thinks commencement speakers have the right to thank anyone they want to. "Other valedictorians thank their parents. I wanted to thank my lord and savior," she said.

John Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute, which will represent McComb in a suit against the district, made the same point: "She has a constitutional right -- like any other student -- to freely speak about the factors that contributed to her success."

School district officials say students are encouraged to mention religion, but McComb's comments went too far and amounted to religious proselytizing, which they refuse to allow. Allen Lichtenstein, the ACLU general counsel, said: "There should be no controversy here. It's important for people to understand that a student was given a state-sponsored forum by a school and therefore, in essence, it was a school-sponsored speech."

Lichtenstein's no-controversy announcement is a bit much. Not every speech on school grounds qualifies as a "school-sponsored speech." The key question is: Who is speaking? Is it the individual student, or the school, selecting a speaker who reflects the administration's views?

The county school board acknowledges this issue clearly. Board policy says that when school speakers are selected "on the basis of genuinely neutral criteria" and retain primary control over their text, then what they say is not attributable to the school and may not be restricted." So on the basis of the board's own principles, it seems that McComb should have been allowed to speak.

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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