Why did teachers in the Phillippines pull the plug on this student's graduation speech?

While addressing her fellow students at their graduation ceremony, a high school student in the Philippines hinted at injustice in the school’s grading system, prompting faculty members to stop her mid-speech.

YouTube screen grab.
In this YouTube screen grab, Krisel Mallari, salutatorian of the graduating class at Sto. Niño Parochial School in Quezon City, Philippines, gives opening remarks in which she hints at injustice in the school's grading system.

A YouTube video that shows school officials in the Philippines cutting off a high school student’s graduation speech has sparked online debate about school authority and the freedom of speech.

During her address at Saturday's ceremony for the graduating class of the Sto. Niño Parochial School in Quezon City, salutatorian Krisel Mallari hinted at injustice in the school's grading system, leading school officials to stop her before she finished.

The incident, which has prompted comments from student groups and government representatives, has called to question the extent of a school’s authority in screening student expression, especially during public addresses. Supporters praised Ms. Mallari for speaking out, while critics said a graduation ceremony was hardly the right place for such an outburst.

Like that of the United States, the Philippine constitution guarantees the right to free expression.

“In schools, it's okay to set parameters,” Department of Education secretary Armin Luistro told news outlet Rappler. “But it's different – treading the line between the parameters of what you can say and how long will you speak versus censorship, that's a different matter.”

School officials tried stopping Mallari early into her speech after she suggested, without going into detail, that the triumph of her graduation had been marred by unfair treatment.

“As this school year ends, I am only one step away from the finish line,” she said in Tagalog. “But upon my arrival, the red lace that would have symbolized my success vanished. Or was it taken away?”

At that point, one faculty member stepped up to the podium, asking her to “kindly stop.” Mallari paused but pushed on, asserting that others had turned a blind eye “to a system that is dirty and disingenuous.”

News site ABS-CBNNews.com later reported that before graduation, Mallari’s father had repeatedly asked the school for the computation behind his daughter’s grades – which the family suspected were lower than they should have been – but to no avail.

Online, the video that sparked the controversy has been viewed nearly 2 million times since it was posted Monday. Most comments on social media have been lauded Mallari for standing up for herself.  

The National Union of Students in the Philippines threw their support behind Mallari, and called out schools that stifled students’ right to expression.

“This censorship is not alien to Filipino students. In fact, censorship is part of the school’s fascism and repressive ways to curtail students’ constitutional and democratic rights,” the group, which supports student rights and welfare, wrote in its official blog. “[S]chool officials screen, not check, speeches to ensure that nothing against the school will be manifested by the students.”

Education Secretary Luistro agreed that the issue Mallari raised is serious, but noted that the graduation ceremony may not have been the right venue to express it, especially since it denied the school the opportunity to respond to the allegations.

"In the Philippines, everyone has the right to air grievances, but the other party also has the right to reply,” he told Rappler. “Maybe [it was] the right issue in the wrong forum.”

Still, Mr. Luistro said the Department of Education’s legal team, in coordination with the Quezon City schools division office, would be looking into the matter.

Mallari has since confirmed that the speech she delivered was different from the copy she submitted to the school for approval.

A comparable incident occurred in Texas in 2013, when a senior at a local high school went off-script during his valedictory address, discussing religion and his constitutional rights. School officials quickly silenced his microphone.

District Superintendent Fran Marek later wrote in a post on the school Facebook page that the cut-off was not about religious references, but about the school’s no-tolerance policy for any deviation from pre-reviewed material.

Similarly, officials at Sto. Niño Parochial defended their decision.

“It is school policy that all speeches must be approved,” according to a statement. “Mallari was told that if she did not abide by the policy, she would not be allowed to deliver her speech.”

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