School Had Right to Demand Grad’s Apology for Come-to-Jesus Speech

     (CN) – A Colorado school district did not violate a high-school graduate’s constitutional rights by making her apologize after she used her valedictory speech to invite people to find out about Jesus Christ, the 10th circuit ruled.

     Former student Erica Corder, one of 15 valedictorians in the graduating class of 2006, gave a 30-second graduation speech that was different than the one she submitted to the principal.
     Lewis Palmer School District No. 38 had a policy of reviewing student speeches before graduation.
     Corder’s diploma was withheld until she publicly apologized for her speech in an email sent from the principal’s office, what Corder claims was a First Amendment violation.
     The district court ruled for the school district, prompting Corder’s appeal.
     The Denver-based federal appeals court held that the school district was allowed to exercise editorial control over Corder’s speech without fear of violating her First Amendment rights, because her speech was given at a school-sponsored event in a way that “the public might reasonably perceive to bear the imprimatur of the school.”
     The school’s content-review policy reflects “an effort to preserve neutrality” in a school environment, Judge Briscoe wrote.
     Briscoe added that the school was “free to compel Corder’s speech” in the email, because it was disseminated from the principal’s office and was directly related to the graduation speech. The three-judge panel found the apology an appropriate discipline for Corder’s actions.
     Corder was asked to follow “the same religion-neutral policies as the other valedictorians,” Briscoe wrote, and did not suffer undue religious burden.
     The court also rejected Corder’s 14th Amendment claim for equal protection, in which she argued that she was treated differently than other speakers who gave inspiring speeches without disciplinary action. Not all speakers were similarly situated, the panel ruled, because Corder’s speech was different than the one she submitted for review.
     The court added that Corder’s claim does not fall under a Colorado law barring prior restraint of student expression slated for written publication, because the graduation event does not qualify as a publication.
     The 10th Circuit also dismissed the plaintiff’s claims for declaratory and injunctive relief as moot, because she is no longer a student.
     The school had “reasonable, legitimate pedagogical purposes for disciplining Corder,” Briscoe concluded.

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