Friday, May 27, 2022

When it comes to speech, the Richardson ISD wants to be ordinarily stupid.

It is May, and it is time for the annual ritual of high school seniors graduating and moving on to another phase in their lives. Part of this ritual is speeches given by top graduates. However, we won't be hearing from top graduates this year.

The Richardson Independent School District
congratulates its 2022 graduates.

According to the Lake Highlands Advocate, the Richardson Independent School District has moved to pre-record the student speeches. When it comes to free speech, this puts the Richardson ISD administration among the ranks of the stupid.

When free speech is now a subject of public discussion, the Richardson Independent School District has decided to restrict student speech foolishly. It is almost always true that school administrators who deny expression almost always look foolish, selfish, and stupid.

I do not say those words to get a dramatic pejorative effect. From my little perch looking at the world, they almost always make themselves look stupid.

One of the first Supreme Court cases involving student speech was Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969). The issue was students wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War. The district suppressed that activity as disruptive. The United States Supreme Court did not agree. That decision resulted in Justice Abe Fortas writing one of the most quoted passages involving student speech:

It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.
What did the Court also say might be interesting as we consider the RISD's policy of pre-censoring a graduation speech? It noted that a district:

...must be able to show that [their] action was caused by something more than a mere desire to avoid the discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompany an unpopular viewpoint.

What possible motive could the district have other than to "avoid the discomfort and unpleasantness" of "an unpopular viewpoint?"

Supreme Court decisions allow districts to censor vulgar or sexual content of student activities, such as the case in Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser (1986). Does anyone seriously suggest that a valedictorian would engage in vulgar speech to the level where this would apply? Does anyone believe a graduate would advocate violence or yell "fire" in the crowded theater?

Now it is true that I have started down the road of a legal discussion. My point here was not to delve into the legalities. It was to use those legal opinions as an expression of values.

The point I wanted to express, in quoting Tinker, pertains to the attitudes and ideas of free and open speech that a community should treasure. Those ideas were necessary to be in the Justices' minds in Tinker for them to write the words they did. In other words, Fortas' quotes above are not merely a legal principle but an expression of good community values which expresses the relation of free speech to the schoolhouse.

It appears the Richardson ISD administration does not hold such values. Why does the RISD administration want to use prior restraint to suppress public speech?

I have said enough. How about we hear from a graduate?

Lake Highlands Valedictorian Sara Shelton said:

If I were to go off-script at any point, I would have just expected them to cut the mic. That would have said more about what they believe than what I believe.
To repeat a tired yet on target idiom: mic drop!

According to the Carol Toller article, she considered not giving the speech on moral grounds. That is another point in her favor showing that she is intelligent, thoughtful and articulate. To spend 12 years working for that moment and to even consider stepping aside on moral grounds shows great character. It is the type of character I want to hear from unrestrained and in her own voice.

She goes on:

This feels like the exact moment you shouldn’t censor students. It’s the moment to celebrate us... It’s not just that something has been taken away from the four of us – something has been taken from everyone in the auditorium.
Who can't agree with that? I can quote more from the Lake Highlands Advocate piece but you can read the rest yourself.

I do not understand how the Richardson ISD administration cannot feel shame about this. As an RISD graduate, I feel shame for them. Adults (and it is adults running the show) should not fear something being spoken that might make us uncomfortable. Make me uncomfortable! Challenge me!

I will not be attending the Lake Highlands graduation ceremony because I know no graduating seniors there. If I were, I would want to hear from Sara Shelton and the other graduates in their live voices. Shelton has proven herself to be a person worth listening to, and I am confident the other graduates are as well.