A controversy has recently come to light in Michigan, a high school student’s valedictorian speech was returned to her for revision after the content was deemed too “Christianized.” The student, Savannah Lefler, a senior at John Glenn High School, submitted her speech for approval before its debut at Honors Night. The school’s principal, Michael Wegher, sent it back asking that it be reworked to be less faith focused.
Lefler’s speech draft is undeniably Christ-centered, at one point going as far as to say that “the purpose of life is to live a life devoted to Christ.” The high school in question is a public school, so the principal’s reaction is not necessarily shocking. However, as First Liberty, the group defending Lefler pointed out, the speech is not a reflection of the school’s opinions, and Savannah is not speaking on behalf of the school. She is speaking on behalf of herself and her educational experience within the school.
Therefore the contents of her speech should not be controlled by anyone, and any attempt to do so would be an infringement of her First Amendment rights. The principal as part of his response was quoted saying “we have a diverse student body and staff. It is one of the things I love about the John Glenn community,” which led to his argument that her speech’s focus on her own religion caused it to not be inclusive of faiths other than Christianity. He continued saying “that diversity goes well beyond race and ethnicity…we have students and staff who would identify as Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist…etc. We must be inclusive and respectful of their beliefs as well.” This statement can be contradicted using the same rationale as the first; Savannah is speaking on her own experience within the school and is not obligated to remove her religious experience or include the experience of others since her speech does not represent the school itself.
Principal Wegher is undeniably in a tough position. On his left, he has progressives, who will be outraged if a speech favors one religion but is not required to address others. On his right, he has conservatives, who will be furious if their First Amendment rights are thrown out the window and religion is a banned topic of conversation.
Oddly enough, another eerily similar scenario arose this week also in the state of Michigan.
Just two hours down the road from John Glenn, another valedictorian’s speech was on the edge of being censored at Hillsdale High School. First Liberty was also quick to defend the student involved in this case, Elizabeth Turner, who eventually had the initial censorship decision overturned.
Turner’s original speech had prevalent Christ-centric language, with her saying “my future hope is found in my relationship with Christ.” Her draft was sent back, with the whole section highlighted with a note saying not to use religious language. The note from Hillsdale’s principal, Amy Goldsmith said that she recognized that “these are your strong beliefs, but they are not appropriate for a speech in a school public setting. I know this will frustrate you, but we have to be mindful...you are representing the school in the speech, not using the podium as your public forum.” However after significant back-and-forth, and the involvement of First Liberty, the school and district have offered a complete change of heart.
The language will be allowed to remain in the speech, and Superintendent Shawn Vondra has spoken out, offering support with the prepared statement “the school district is committed to the protection and expression of First Amendment-protected content for students.”
Savannah Lefler’s case has not yet been resolved, but it is likely that the results will be similar to that of Elizabeth Turner’s and the First Amendment will be defended in these Michigan schools.