A high school valedictorian in Colorado has lost her bid for the US Supreme Court to decide whether school officials violated her free-speech rights when they withheld her diploma until she agreed to apologize to the student body for mentioning Jesus in her graduation speech.
Erica Corder was one of 15 students with a 4.0 grade-point average selected as co-valedictorians for the 2006 class at Lewis-Palmer High School in Monument, Colo. Each of the 15 was to deliver a 30-second speech. The principal required the students to submit their remarks to him for prior approval.
Ms. Corder's written comments were approved, but she delivered a different speech at graduation. She told her fellow students: "We are all capable of standing firm and expressing our own beliefs, which is why I need to tell you about someone who loves you more than you could ever imagine."
She added: "He died for you on a cross over 2,000 years ago, yet was resurrected and is living today in heaven. His name is Jesus Christ. If you don't already know him personally, I encourage you to find out more about the sacrifice he made for you so that you now have the opportunity to live in eternity with him."
After the speech, school officials informed Corder that because of her unauthorized public comments at graduation, she would not receive her diploma unless she publicly apologized.
Corder drafted a statement saying that she never intended to offend anyone by her comments and that school officials did not condone or even know about the content of her remarks before they were made. She said she was sorry she did not share her planned remarks with school officials and the other valedictorians before the speech, but she did not apologize for the content of her speech. Instead, she said, the comments reflected her personal beliefs.
The principal directed Corder under threat of not receiving her diploma to add a sentence to her statement. The required sentence reads: "I realize that, had I asked ahead of time, I would not have been allowed to say what I did."
Corder's amended statement was e-mailed to the student body, and she received her diploma.
The issue did not end there. Corder filed a lawsuit against the school district and school officials, charging that they violated her right to free speech by punishing her for the content of her graduation comments and by later forcing her to issue an apology partly written by the principal.
At issue in her suit was to what extent students possess free-speech rights while participating in school-sponsored activities.
The Supreme Court has ruled that students do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the school house gate." But the court has also ruled that school officials may sometimes restrict those rights during school-sponsored activities when the restrictions are "reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns."
A federal judge dismissed Corder's lawsuit, ruling that school officials acted within their constitutional authority in preapproving graduation speeches and dictating the content of her apology statement. The Tenth US Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver upheld that ruling.
The case is Corder v. Lewis Palmer School District No. 38.
On Nov. 16, the Supreme Court turned down a similar case from Nevada. Brittany McComb had argued that her rights were violated when the microphone was turned off during her graduation speech, which contained religious themes.
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