Michigan and the First Amendment

Michigan and the First Amendment

Michigan and the First Amendment

Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form
June 9 2008 3:00 PM

Michigan and the First Amendment

I recently wrote about the Michigan legislature sipping the "academic freedom" koolaid, trying to pass an unconstitutional bill that will make it OK to teach religion in the classroom.

Shortly thereafter, I got an email from a reader about a related incident in that same state, where a high school student was asked to change his speech at graduation because he wanted to give a Bible sermon:

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Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

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If Jed Grooters didn't agree to make changes requested by West Ottawa Public Schools, he wasn't expected to be allowed to speak at Sunday's ceremony, The Holland Sentinel and The Grand Rapids Press reported.

"We want to hear our valedictorians talk about their life lessons, but that's not what was coming from Jed. He was giving a religious speech," West Ottawa Superintendent Patricia Koeze said.

This is an interesting situation. Commencement ceremonies are held by the school, and are therefore publicly funded. But the speech itself is by an individual, who has First Amendment rights.

You may be surprised by this, but my feeling is that he should be allowed to say what he wants to say.

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The school is not endorsing what he says. It's clear these are his thoughts, not the school district's. He was not hired to appear at an assembly that was mandatory, and he is not employed by the school. He is co-valedictorian, and earned the right to make a speech. I also suspect -- though I am not a lawyer, of course -- that he has a valid First Amendment issue here. The ACLU may be interested in this; despite what many on the far right say, the ACLU does actively pursue these sorts of things and supports peoples' rights even when it's religion that's being persecuted. And also, in general, I think it's best to err on the side of more freedom, not less.

Let me also be clear and say that what the student chose to say is, at best, rude. I think it is in poor taste, extremely poor taste, to proselytize to a captive audience, but it's his right.

Just as it's the right of the audience to let their feelings be known, too. When I graduated from the University of Michigan, Mike Wallace was the commencement speaker. He was involved in some minor scandal at the time, and a few students protested his speech by standing up and facing the other way. I disagreed with them at the time, but I had to admit it was an effective statement.

That's part of the essence of the First Amendment: people have the right to speech, and others have the right to protest. Don't like what someone is saying? Then the answer is more speech, not less. Let the kid talk. But let others have their say as well.