18 June 2011

Unfair censorship, or upholding secular decorum?

Damon Fowler's fight against school-imposed graduation prayer sparked a firestorm of controversy, and it's understandable that other high schools with similar traditions might be rethinking them now.

Another high school decided to play it safe and censor its valedictorian's speech because the student wanted to talk about his Christian faith.

I have mixed feelings about the school principal's decision and the discussion surrounding it.

It really infuriates me that people in this country can't find a happy medium between hateful traditionalist chauvinism and spineless PC-obsessive expurgation.  Having an exclusionary Christian prayer as part of the graduation ceremony in a public school is a violation of the non-Christian students' rights; forbidding a student speaker to mention the effect his religion has had on his life is a violation of his rights.

You can read the full text of the final version of his speech here, with the censored parts inserted at the end.  If I were the administrator, I would have recommended that he tone down the preachy parts, but I wouldn't have crossed out the whole section.

I fully expect Fox News to spin this story as us nasty atheists trying to oppress good Christians.

And now, a caveat

However, considering the source of the article, I will take this story with a grain of salt.  The administrator may well have just told him to cut out the preachy parts, and the student may well have reacted as if the whole thing were being censored, as the fervently religious are wont to do. I would hope that a valedictorian would be smart enough to know that not every podium is a pulpit and that there are situations in which proselytizing is tactless, but that is merely a hope.

I would also hope that he's smart enough to come up with a speech that is inspiring and inclusive for all students, not just the ones who give Jesus credit for their own hard work. Judging by the text of his speech, that doesn't seem to be the case; he was sure to include political grandstanding in place of his witnessing.
"It saddens me even more that the founding fathers created the first amendment, but today Congress has changed it to exclude those that they do not want to speak and defiled the principles on which this country was built on."
Aside from being equally inappropriate for a graduation speech, this statement smacks of the religious right's tired old trope: implying that the First Amendment allows them to use public resources to push their religion so long as no one's being forced at gunpoint to attend church.

Whatever the truth happens to be in this particular case, I do not want to see the precedent set that all religious speech is to be censored in public school ceremonies.  Students have a right to express themselves, and that includes expressing their religious beliefs; they also have the responsibility to know the difference between expressing themselves and abusing a speaking opportunity to ramble about something unrelated to the subject at hand.

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