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    Was valedictorian’s speech protected as freedom of expression or religion?

    Date: 06.09.09 | by Judge Tom.

    Erica Corder was one of fifteen valedictorians at her commencement at Lewis-Palmer High School in 2006 in Colorado.  Each student was allowed thirty seconds to speak.

    ericacorderlewispalmerhsSchool policy required that each speech be reviewed by the principal before the ceremony. Erica submitted her speech and it was approved.

    However, unknown to anyone, when she got up and delivered her remarks, she had changed them to include the following, in part:

    ” . . .I need to tell you about someone who loves you more than you could ever imagine. . . . His name is Jesus Christ. If you don’t already know him personally, I encourage you to find out more about the sacrifice he made for you so that you now have the opportunity to live in eternity with Him . . .”

    After the ceremony, Erica was told that she would not receive her diploma until she wrote an apology for her remarks.  She complied and was instructed to add the following to her message:  “I realize that, had I asked ahead of time, I would not have been allowed to say what I did.” With this added sentence, her apology was e-mailed to the high school community and she received her diploma.

    What do you think? Were her spoken words appropriate at a public high school event? Why or why not? Are you offended by the school dictating to her what her apology should include? Were her words protected as freedom of expression under the First Amendment – or as freedom of religion - or both?

    In May, 2009, a federal appellate court upheld the school’s action against Erica.* They based their decision on the fact that she violated the school’s policy of prior review. She changed her approved words to a message that the school did not review in advance. The court found that the discipline [withholding her diploma] was due to her straying from the approved content without consent – not because of its religious content.

    *Corder v. Lewis-Palmer School District (May 29, 2009, 10th Circuit Court of Appeals).

    Find out more about religious expression at school

    Judge Tom

    This post was written by Judge Tom. Judge Tom is the founder and moderator of AsktheJudge.info. He is a retired juvenile judge and spent 23 years on the bench. He has written several books for lawyers and judges as well as teens and parents including the recently published 'Teen Cyberbullying Investigated' (Free Spirit Publishing). When he's not answering teens' questions, Judge Tom can be found hiking, traveling and reading.

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