Topic: Professions & Institutions
Brittany McComb’s Valedictory Speech
Conservative columnists, talk show hosts and bloggers are attempting to make high school senior Brittany McComb a martyr to political correctness run amuck. McComb’s valedictory speech last month at Foothill High School in Henderson, Nevada was cut short by school officials when she veered from the script approved by the school into her original version, an unapologetic and enthusiastic description of how she believes God influenced her high school success. When they pulled the plug on her microphone mid-speech, school administrators believed that she had crossed the line into proselytizing. Now, predictably, Brittany’s parents and the usual advocacy groups are bringing a free speech lawsuit against the school, which is being defended by the A.C.L.U.
Whether McComb’s speech at a school event would have constituted state endorsement of religion is a legal question that The Scoreboard will happily leave to the courts. I tend to doubt it; a valedictory speech is by nature a personal statement, and it is hard to believe that by simply providing a forum the school was endorsing or supporting the views McComb put forth. But the Constitutional question is separate from the ethical one, which is whether McComb was wrong to double-cross the school and read her original draft after agreeing to the school’s edits.
That one is easier. She was wrong. Even assuming that the school administrators were being hypersensitive and excessively careful, as school administrators tend to be these days, and that her original text was appropriate, she deceived them by pretending that she was going to deliver the text as it had been edited. By ambushing them with her original words, she put the school in a difficult position. They could have handled the situation differently, and arguably they should have, allowing Brittany to complete her speech and clarifying what happened afterwards. But they had only seconds to act, and haste, pressure and surprise do not often result in the best decisions. McComb, however, made her decision to renege on her agreement with care and forethought. She was spoiling for a fight, and got it. It was an unethical performance from start to finish.
“Other valedictorians thank their parents. I wanted to thank my lord and savior,” Brittany has told the press, disingenuously. Complete balderdash. McComb’s speech did not merely “thank” God; it was, as school officials properly recognized, a full-fledged sermon, a commercial for Christianity:
Wow. That’s some “thank you.”
And an inappropriate one, as the school initially told McComb when she submitted her first draft. Not every conviction and belief of a student valedictorian is appropriate for a graduation day speech to an audience of high school students and parents. A political rant about impeaching George Bush or invading North Korea or appointing more conservative judges would be inappropriate. A pro- or anti- abortion diatribe would be out of place. A discourse on the virtues on Eminem rap songs would be a mistake, as would a lecture on the recent advances in paleontology, or scrimshaw. School officials would be within their discretion vetoing a collection of bawdy limericks, or an overview of the political career of Fiorello LaGuardia.
They were also on reasonable ground saying “Uh-uh!” to McComb’s ill-placed attempt to do missionary work at a public event. Conservative columnist John Leo, usually one of the most articulate, perceptive and rational of his breed, supports McComb but called the religious content of her speech “tacky.” No, it was wrong. She hijacked the ceremony to pursue a very narrow and personal agenda, and gave no thought to the expectations and sensibilities of her audience, her classmates, or her school to which, by the way, she also owed a “thank you.”
She thanked it by deceiving its officials, and immersing them in a public controversy that will now consume time, resources and emotion that could be far better spent on educating students.
Perhaps her speech was protected by the First Amendment. That doesn’t make it right.