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Supreme Court petitioned on religion free speech case

August 30, 2009

Liberty Counsel Petitions Supreme Court to Hear Graduation Free Speech Case

WASHINGTON, Aug. 28 /Christian Newswire/ — Liberty Counsel has filed a Petition for Certiorari at the United States Supreme Court on behalf of Erica Corder, a high school graduate with a 4.0 GPA who was denied her diploma until she issued a publicly disseminated, coerced, written apology for presenting a thirty-second valedictory speech that included a religious reference.

Erica was one of fifteen valedictorians from the Lewis-Palmer High School class of 2006. Each valedictorian orally presented a proposed speech to the principal before graduation.

At the graduation ceremony, Erica deviated from her prepared speech and expressed her faith in Jesus Christ, encouraging the audience to learn more about Him. Afterwards, she was escorted to see the assistant principal, who said she would not receive her diploma because of the speech she had given.

Principal Mark Brewer later said that she could only receive her diploma if she apologized to the school community. Erica prepared a statement saying the message was her own and was not endorsed by the principal. Principal Brewer insisted that she include the words: “I realize that, had I asked ahead of time, I would not have been allowed to say what I did.” Principal Brewer sent out Erica’s message in an e-mail to the entire high school community. Soon after, Erica received her diploma. Erica complied because she feared the school would withhold her diploma, put disciplinary notes in her file, and would generate negative publicity, which could prevent her from becoming a school teacher.

Erica filed suit against the Lewis-Palmer School District in August 2007, seeking declaratory relief and nominal damages for a violation of her First Amendment right to freedom of speech. The district court ruled there was no constitutional violation, stating that Erica’s speech was “school-sponsored,” and therefore the forced apology was not improper. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the ruling. The Tenth Circuit’s decision undermines student free speech rights and conflicts with an Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals decision. Liberty Counsel litigated for 8½ years against the ACLU on a graduation message case in Adler v. Duval County School Board. A 12-judge panel of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals sitting en banc sided with Liberty Counsel and found that a policy whereby students select the content of their messages is student speech, not school-sponsored speech. Thus, religious viewpoints of students are protected by the First Amendment. The case is Corder v. Lewis-Palmer School District No. 38.

Mathew Staver, Founder of Liberty Counsel and Dean of Liberty University School of Law, commented: “A valedictorian’s speech is not government speech. Everyone knows that a valedictorian earned the high GPA and understands the speech belongs to the student. It is reprehensible that the school district threatened to withhold Erica Corder’s diploma, merely because a few sentences of her 30-second speech included references to God.”

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