An Illinois eighth grader was barred from making a speech at his school commencement ceremonies, despite earning the title of Salutatorian and being invited to speak.
Problems arose when officials at Akin Grade School reviewed the student’s speech, which included both a prayer and Bible verse. Student Seth Clark submitted his speech to school officials, but was told that he could not deliver the speech as written because of the faith-based nature of his remarks.
A local television station, WSIL, covered the controversy in May after news spread that Clark would be banned from giving his speech.
Even though Clark is a minor, wrote his own speech and would not be speaking for the school, the district banned him from giving his speech at graduation. Clark earned the opportunity by working hard and maintaining top grades, but the school objected to the religious content of his submitted speech and refused to let him speak to his fellow students, assembled parents and guests.
The Akin School District Weighs In
Why did Akin School District prohibit Clark from speaking? According to school principal and superintendent Kelly Clark:
“As a public school, it is our duty to educate students, regardless of how different they or their beliefs may be. While students are welcome to pray or pursue their faith without disrupting school or infringing upon the rights of others, the United States Constitution prohibits the school district from incorporating such activities as part of school-sponsored events, and when the context causes a captive audience to listen or compels other students to participate.”
The school principal went on to state that because graduation was a school event, that student’s speeches could be seen as official statements, not free speech by the graduate.
“Because graduation is an official, school-sponsored event, the law would prohibit incorporating prayer or worship into the schedule of events,” the principal added. “We respect the diverse beliefs our students and their families hold, and we strive to educate all such students in compliance with the law.”
While this seems to be a plausible excuse, the student was not speaking on behalf of the school and was not a school employee; he was simply sharing his opinion, beliefs and thoughts, just as valedictorians and salutatorians have been doing at commencement ceremonies for decades.
A teacher could be barred from giving this type of speech, but infringing on the rights of a student is going too far, according to J. Tobin Grant, chairman of the political science department at Southern Illinois University.
“When you have a student initiated speech like this, there should’ve been no problem having the student have really any opinion that he wants,” Grant said in an interview with local media. “The key thing, as far as the school is concerned, is that they can’t be involved in anything that is religious. They can’t have a prayer. They can’t have students read a passage from any religious scripture or the Bible.”
A Neighborhood Hero Steps In
When news spread that Clark would not be permitted to give his speech, despite earning the right to do so, a family friend stepped in.
Rickey Karroll lives just across the street from the Akin Grade school. When he realized what was happening, he offered his yard to Clark so he could give his speech.
When the graduation ceremony ended, Seth Clark, his family and many others headed across the street to Karroll’s home. There, Clark delivered his speech still robed in his cap and gown. Clark began with a prayer of Thanksgiving, and included Bible quotes about forgiveness.
“I would like to apologize to all of you that I have hurt at any time in any way,” the student said. “I am not perfect, but as found in 1 Peter 1:16, ‘Be holy as I am holy.’”
When asked about offering his lawn to Seth Clark, neighbor Rickey Karroll cited the student’s free speech rights.
“I think he has a right … to give his opinion, and he wanted to do a prayer, and last count I checked, we are still in the United States of America, and it’s the right to freedom of speech.” Karroll said.
~ 1776 Christian