Shame on Lewis-Palmer High School??? No way! Shame on David Harsanyi and Erica Corder!

Denver Post Columnist, David Harsanyi, attempts to stoke the fires that burn in my guts — those fires that drive my admittedly evangelical desire to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States.

Harsanyi tells a tale of Constitutional woe in Student spoke up, school let her down. In that column, he tells us that Erica Corder, one of 15 valedictorians at Lewis-Palmer high school, used her valedictorian speech to introduce the audience to Jesus Christ. For this “sin,” she was denied her diploma until she apologized.

Oooh, that got me steamed. A kid is being denied her diploma for exercising her First Amendment rights? Not without me saying something about it! I started doing some research on it so that I could write a blog entry about it. I turned over a few stones, and it wasn’t too long until the slimy writing figure of a dishonest slug crawled out into the daylight.

My steam turned to ice.

The “bad guys” here are not the administrators at Lewis-Palmer at all. Harsanyi and Ms. Corder both engaged in deception, and they should be the ones being slammed — not Lewis-Palmer High School.

The Harsanyi column is terribly biased (which should be forgiven in an op-ed piece), and omits key details (which should not be). See Post’s Harsanyi omitted essential details of free-speech case. That little exposé tells us that the school required pre-approval of all valedictorian speeches, and that our “little miss victim” appears to have purposely omitted her proselytizing from her rehearsal speeches. Shame on her for that dishonesty and shame David Harsanyi for his selective omission. (I received an email criticizing my use of the Media Matters source as a biased source. Here is another from the Colorado Springs Gazette, if you don’t like Media Matters. Grad’s call to Jesus a surprise for school).

Corder reportedly has acknowledged that her remarks were preconceived, and that she purposefully veiled her intent to advance her religious views from school authorities, fearing that she would be told to omit those remarks… Corder “knew she wanted to honor God in her remarks, but she didn’t do so in her practice speech because she knew there was a chance [The Principal] would prohibit the comments, and because she didn’t think there would be enough time to work through the issue with him.” (source

In other words, this isn’t as cut and dry as it seems in the Harsanyi column. In fact, it seems like another example of a “Christian” behaving dishonestly in order to proselytize – behavior that is far too common. She decided that it was better to seek forgiveness than permission – and was penalized for her dishonesty by being forced to apologize for it.

The article’s lack of honesty is even more disturbing. This article quotes Matthew Staver of the Liberty Counsel as some kind of an expert in the subject of religious freedom. The article does not reveal that Liberty Counsel is hardly a defender of First Amendment rights – unless those rights are directly correlated to its own mission of promoting Christianity. That is a little bit dishonest, but the column’s failure to disclose that Staver is representing our so-called victim in her Federal lawsuit was inexcusable.

With the facts torn asunder, lets look at the constitutionality of the school’s actions. If the school required pre-approval for the speeches, it had a right to demand an apology for a singificant deviation from the approved speech. I am no fan of prior restraint (au contraire!), but no reasonable legal mind could say that a school can’t pre-screen student graduation speeches. Even prior to the “Bong Hits for Jesus” Case, this would have been the law of the land, but after “Bong Hits for Jesus,” otherwise known as Morse v. Frederick, 127 S.Ct. 2618 (2007), it becomes glaringly obvious that under the law of unintended consequences, Lewis Palmer High School’s actions are entirely consistent with Morse, and educational First Amendment jurisprudence under earlier cases, as articulated in Morse

Morse states:

A principal may, consistent with the First Amendment , restrict student speech at a school event, when that speech is reasonably viewed as promoting illegal drug use. In Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School Dist. the Court declared, in holding that a policy prohibiting high school students from wearing antiwar armbands violated the First Amendment, that student expression may not be suppressed unless school officials reasonably conclude that it will “materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school” The Court in Bethel School Dist. No. 403 v. Fraser, , however, upheld the suspension of a student who delivered a high school assembly speech employing “an elaborate, graphic, and explicit sexual metaphor,” Analyzing the case under Tinker, the lower courts had found no disruption, and therefore no basis for discipline. This Court reversed, holding that the school was “within its permissible authority in imposing sanctions … in response to [the student’s] offensively lewd and indecent speech.”…..In school, however, [Fraser’s] First Amendment rights were circumscribed “in light of the special characteristics of the school environment.” Tinker, supra, at 506. … the Court has held in the Fourth Amendment context that “while children assuredly do not ‘shed their constitutional rights … at the schoolhouse gate,’ … the nature of those rights is what is appropriate for children in school,” Vernonia School Dist. 47J v. Acton and has recognized that deterring drug use by schoolchildren is an “important—indeed, perhaps compelling” interest. (citations and portions omitted)

I believe that Morse is a bad decision, but like it or not, the Supreme Court decides what is the supreme law of the land — and it has made it rather clear that there are not many First Amendment rights left for our high school students.

With that in mind, plug the school’s actions into Morse. A public school may not proselytize to its students. In fact, this is specifically prohibited by the First Amendment. If the school were seen as endorsing a particular religion, which might be the case if the Valedictorian proselytizes during her graduation speech, it would find itself at the receiving end of a Federal lawsuit. Given the fact that the school has a policy of pre-screening the valedictorians’ speeches, it could certainly be inferred that the school was unconstitutionally promoting Christianity, unless Ms. Corder took responsibility for her actions. Ms. Corder, in an act that Jesus certainly wouldn’t approve of, not only lied about her intentions, but now seeks compensation because the school forced her to take responsibility for her actions. Welcome to adulthood, Ms. Corder.

Even if there were no pre-screening in place, the school doesn’t need a compelling interest in order to suppress student speech — especially after Morse. Nevertheless, protecting the school from expensive litigation would be, at least, important enough to justify the school’s actions.

We can plug another interest in here as well. If a student proselytizes for a particular religion, the school could reasonably state that it would be concerned that it would “materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school” See Tinker. Imagine if the next Valedictorian wished to proselytize for his religion – and that religion was not on the unwritten list of “approved” religions. Lets face it, if the next student stood up and advocated for Islam, would there be a disruption? Maybe. How about Satanism, Paganism, or Atheism? You can bet your life on it. What if the next student were an Atheist and stood up and used his valedictorian platform to inform the crowd of his view that all religious beliefs are simply superstition? I would imagine that there would be a near riot. (Atheists are the “most distrusted minority” in America – source).

Given the way that religion has become so politicized in America over the past seven years, those who are guilty of that sin have caused religion to be more of a contentious issue than ever before. In this environment, unfettered proselytizing would invite strong counterpoints, and would be disruptive to a school’s environment. Even if I am wrong about that, it would certainly be reasonable under Morse for a school to come to this conclusion. Once it did so, Morse gives any school system that comes to the same conclusion complete cover for its actions. Oops. The law of unintended consequences strikes again.

Given the way that the Supreme Court tied logic in knots in order to preserve a school’s right to suppress speech advocating speech that it didn’t like in Morse, this circumstance at Lewis Palmer High School is the natural outgrowth of the result-based jurisprudence in Morse. The chickens have come home to roost.

This post stared off with the title “Shame on Lewis-Palmer High School.” However, now that I have done some digging, it is now appropriately named.

I hereby sentence Harsanyi to attend an ethics course, and I sentence Erica Corder to both that course and to “Being a grown up and taking responsibility for your actions 101.”

(added later)

To add more to the story: Another blogger reports Manufactured “Christian Free Speech” Lawsuit Filed:

Erica’s father was a director at Focus on the Family, James Dobson’s filthy rich and highly influential theocracy mongering organization dedicated in large part to through-and-through Christianizing government at every level.

Erica’s dad says that neither he nor FoF had any idea what she was up to. If your bullshit alarm didn’t explode when you read that, return it for a full refund. Given the well established fact that lying for the Lord is what FoF is all about, it’s virtually certain that they not only had advance knowledge of but actually orchestrated the whole mess.(source)

The Colorado Springs Gazette confirms Erica’s dad’s position with Dobson’s group. See Grad’s call to Jesus a surprise for school). She also apparently switched places with another student so that her speech would be the “final word.” I share the other blogger’s skepticism that Focus on the Family and/or Erica’s father had no prior knowledge of her plan – but that is, IMHO, irrelevant.