Invalidating Valedictorians

It's time to let high school seniors into our democracy
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The highest U.S. courts have tacitly asserted that high school seniors are not ready for democracy. According to the courts' logic, seniors are incapable of making simple intellectual distinctions and lack maturity to listen civilly to dissenting views.

Chris and Jason Niemeyer were the 1998 and 1999 class valedictorians at Oroville High School in California. When Chris gave school administrators an advance copy of his speech—which said that all people are "God's children, through Jesus Christ's death, when we accept his free love and saving grace," and urged listeners to embrace a "personal relationship" with God—he was denied permission to speak.

The next year, Jason submitted his valedictory address that, while less religious overall, concluded by urging listeners "to take advantage of the friendship that is offered us in Christ." The school forbade not only this speech but also a revised version in which Jason made only indirect references to Jesus ("a friend who has personally helped me to achieve my goals, and I give him the praise and glory for that").

The boys sued the school district, and it finally became the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals's responsibility to justify this denial of free speech. (In March, the Supreme Court let the 9th Circuit Court's October 2000 decision stand without comment.)

The court worried about "the susceptibility of adolescents to peer and social pressure," and spoke of the speech as "unduly coercive," requiring students who disagreed with the message to either skip the ceremony or listen to it in silence. The court further reasoned that "our society recognizes that even simply standing or remaining silent can signify adherence to the views of others" and that allowing Niemeyer's speech ...

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