Thursday, February 20, 2003
Censorship of Religious References in Graduation Speech Upheld by Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals
By ROBERT GREENE, Associate Editor
Administrators at a Bay Area public high school were within their rights to censor portions of a graduation speech in which an honors student planned to urge his fellow graduates to turn to God, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.
In upholding a lower court ruling that dismissed the student’s free speech suit, the three-judge panel said permitting the student to proselytize at the ceremony would amount to an unconstitutional entanglement of a government institution with religion.
The court rejected the student’s argument that that any First Amendment entanglement problem could be alleviated by a “disclaimer” in which the school could distance itself from the content of the student’s message. Permitting the speech would still amount to “coerced participation” in a religious activity,” Judge Susan Graber wrote.
“Regardless of any offered disclaimer, a reasonable dissenter still could feel that there is no choice but to participate in the proselytizing in order to attend high school graduation,” Graber wrote. “Although a disclaimer arguably distances school officials from ‘sponsoring’ the speech, it does not change the fact that proselytizing amounts to a religious practice that the school district may not coerce other students to participate in, even while looking the other way.”
Nicholas Lassonde, a devout Christian, had a grade-point average of 4.24 and was selected as one of two co-salutatorians for the Alameda High School class of 1999. He was invited to speak at the graduation ceremony, and he drafted a speech that quoted extensively from the Bible and called on students to reject the morals of modern society in favor and instead accept God.
The principal reviewed a draft of the speech with the school district’s lawyer and instructed Lassonde to remove three portions of the speech that referenced God and Jesus.
A lawyer who Lassonde retained to negotiate terms of the speech suggested the disclaimer, but the idea was rejected. Instead, the student was allowed to hand out copies of the unedited speech to students as they left the ceremony, while he agreed under protest to deliver the speech with the objectionable portions removed.
He later sued, alleging denial of his state and federal rights to free speech, religious liberty and equal protection.
The portions removed from the speech included Lassonde urging his fellow students “to seek out the Lord, and let Him guide you. Through His power, you can stand tall in the face of darkness, and survive the trends of ‘modern society.’”
The other portions were a well-known passage from Psalm 146, which begins with the words, “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortal men, who cannot even save themselves,” and an often-cited verse from Romans 6:23:
“For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
He followed that passage by asking, “Have you accepted the gift, or will you pay the ultimate price?”
The principal and district counsel permitted some religious references to remain. For example, they allowed the student to note that his grandfather had gone “home to be with the Lord” and to say, “Good Luck and God Bless!”
Graber said Lassonde did not allege facts amounting to a constitutional violation, given the court’s 2000 ruling in Cole v. Oroville Union High School District.
In Cole, a co-valedictorian and another student refused to tone down their proselytizing speeches and instead sued for damages. The Ninth Circuit ruled that the school district’s actions were necessary to avoid violating the Establishment Clause by barring an appearance of government sponsorship of religion and preventing an “impermissibly coercive effect on dissenters.”
The same was true in this case, Graber said. Forcing a non-Christian to choose between skipping his or her high school graduation—an important occasion in most people’s lives—and participating in a religious practice is not constitutionally permissible, the judge said.
She also said that the Cole ruling does not permit less restrictive alternatives to censorship.
Graber was joined by Senior Judges Arthur Alarcon and Procter Hug.
The case is Lassonde v. Pleasanton Unified School District, 01-17226.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company