If you believe FOX News’ Todd Starnes — and you never should, since he routinely acts like Jesus gives him permission to lie — a high school valedictorian from Illinois had his graduation speech censored by administrators because it mentioned Jesus.
Sam Blackledge, a student at West Prairie High School, was all set to deliver his speech at Saturday night’s ceremonies, but administrators pulled him aside hours earlier to say his draft was unacceptable.
“They said they didn’t want to make it a religious ceremony,” Sam on the “Todd Starnes Radio Show.” “They told me that if I took out Christ I could say everything else.”
The young man with the 4.0 grade point average pleaded his case — explaining that he only wanted to convey to the audience about how his personal relationship with Christ had impacted his life.
“The principal told me it wasn’t appropriate for the setting,” Sam told me.
To Sam’s credit, he removed the stuff about Jesus when he gave the speech because “as a Christian we should respect the authority above us.”
But the real question here is whether the administrators crossed the line. Did they illegally censor a student because he wanted to mention Jesus?
We don’t have all the details in this case, but it sure as hell doesn’t look like it.
First, let’s look at what Sam wanted to say. According to an (unconfirmed) version of his speech posted on Facebook, Sam had a perfectly fine talk ready to give… until the end, when he wanted to say this:
I want you to think for a moment, is there any event in history where these four converged in one place? Where did Evil, Justice, Love and Forgiveness converge at a moment in history? Can I take you to a hill called Calvary and show you the person of Jesus Christ?
The Cross of Christ shows us our own evil hearts, that we would put an innocent man up to die. Christ came to show us God’s justice in dealing with the unfairness of the world. The Cross demonstrates to us the very love of God who died in our place and how we find at the end of the day that without his forgiveness we would never make it.
Graduates, I hope your life is devoid of evil, full of justice, full of love, and full of forgiveness. I think our parents however, could attest that trying to manage this on our own is more than difficult. The most important thing in your life is to find that intimacy with God. He will guide you, he will hold you, and he will take you through safely in your journey. As you search for goodness, justice, love, and forgiveness, know that only God is big enough to provide that for you.
Sam is wrong about all of that. But that’s not the point. The point is this is clearly promoting his religious beliefs on stage during a secular ceremony. I don’t think he would deny this either.(On a side note, if he were promoting Satanism, Islam, or atheism instead, Todd Starnes would immediately rush to his parents’ basement and start typing out a long article about how it’s appalling any school district would allow the student to speak. Because Todd Starnes is nothing if not hypocritical.)
So was it illegal for the school to ask Sam to change his speech? No. And this is evident if you read between the lines.
Here’s something Starnes never brings up: How did the administrators know Sam was going to talk about Jesus at the ceremony?
The only way they would’ve known is if they requested a draft of students’ speeches ahead of time.
And if they knew he was going to talk about Jesus — and they allowed him to do it — people could rightfully accuse the district of promoting religion themselves. The administrators could’ve been subject to a lawsuit. So it’s not that they were trying to censor Sam. They were really just covering their own asses.
For what it’s worth, some public schools have gotten around this predicament by purposely not reviewing students’ speeches at all. You can’t be blamed for what you didn’t know was going to happen, right? The down side of that is you literally don’t know what students are going to say at the ceremony… and that’s frightening.
But it appears that West Prairie High School did review speeches early on, and the administrators were well within their rights to request a change in Sam’s draft.
Christian legal defense group First Liberty is apparently providing help to Sam… for what, I don’t know.
The following day, First Liberty Institute, one of the nation’s top religious liberty law firms, learned about Sam’s plight and is now providing him legal counsel.
“School officials should remember that students retain their constitutional rights to freedom of expression from the schoolhouse gates, all the way through the graduation ceremony,” First Liberty Institute attorney Jeremy Dys told me.
“These school officials ruined the only high school graduation Sam will ever know,” Dys told me. “How many more graduations have to be ruined before school officials will learn that the First Amendment protects student remarks at graduation?”
All of that is meaningless. Don’t let it distract you.
Notice that First Liberty didn’t say they were filing a lawsuit or even threatening one. That’s because the school district didn’t do anything wrong. When students speak at a public school’s graduation ceremony, and the district reviews their speeches ahead of time, it’s safe to assume that what those students say is approved by the administrators. It’s government speech. It shouldn’t be promoting religion, much less a particular faith.
So for all of Starnes’ bluster about how this is “anti-Christian censorship” that cannot be tolerated, he has no legal foundation to fall back on. Because this isn’t anti-Christian censorship. It’s just a school district following the First Amendment and adhering to the Establishment Clause.
(Image via Shutterstock. Thanks to Gemmy for the link)