Recently I attended a high school graduation ceremony. The class president and also valedictorian was making his speech. I noticed that he began speaking critically about the school administration and how it abused its authority with an authoritarian style that tended to ignore student opinion. He complained that unnecessary restrictions were placed on the students, restrictions that tended to stifle students’ right to be heard and their educational development. Suddenly, his microphone went dead. A school official approached and told him to stop the speech, and the student proceeded to walk off stage. Most of the students appeared to cheer their president, as did many in the audience.

The event burst on social media and also went national with coverage on outlets like CNN, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. The student was also interviewed on Jimmy Kimmel Live. I found all this attention interesting, a relatively small occurrence  gaining such national attention. It all raised a lot of questions in my mind, though.

Some say the school essentially censored the student. Hmm. Maybe. But perhaps there was some justification. The student admitted he had to submit a speech for prior approval, but he did not include the brief critical section, knowing the administration would not approve it. During the speech he chose to go off-script, clearly violating the stated arrangement. This is interesting!

Our system includes many Constitutional freedoms bestowed on an individual, such as freedom of speech, and we value them dearly. But then again, “There is a time and a place for everything.” Why did he choose to make his point at a ceremony honoring the graduates and their families?

I also can’t help but wonder if the entire class agreed with him. In fact, I doubt many even knew of his plan other than a few classmates really close to him. Seems as though he kept everything “close to the vest,” knowing that he might get shut down. Could this be a bit of self-indulgence on his part? Of course, if he wanted maximum exposure for his point, he sure succeeded.

How about the school officials? One could argue they had every right to shut him down because he intentionally “blindsided” them by going off-script. He chose to do what he wanted to do instead of honoring the previously-arranged agreement (standard procedure at the school).

Many will give this young man a pat on the back for this, highlighting his gusto and fervor. They might also note that the school officials missed a great “teaching moment.” What are we teaching here? What is the real message? Do we tell our youth that rules and authority matter? Or, should freedom of speech be held to the highest importance, and in some circumstances rules and authority don’t matter? If we have a point to make, should we not make it despite circumstances and prior arrangements? It is something to think about here.

All these questions make me wonder about the messages we are sending our youth, and the future implications of these from an aggregate viewpoint. Maybe this is small potatoes in the scope of larger issues going on around us today, but maybe not. Is there an accumulation of messages all around us that is potentially shaping the future society we live in? Is the aggregate message healthy or not? Things to consider.  I look forward to any feedback.

FYI, following link includes a video of Kimmel’s interview, plus the text of the speech that was almost delivered.

3 thoughts on “”

  1. Brian asks a lot of great questions. Did the school officials miss out on a “teaching moment”? At first glance it would appear so. Why are they so afraid of some public criticism from this student? Just let the kid speak his peace and move on with the ceremony. The comments didn’t look offensive, demeaning, or mean-spirited to me. Good lord, we see cruder and more puerile comments from our Tweeter-in-Chief on an almost daily basis. With their authoritarian reaction, however, the school folks seemed to verify the heavy-handed treatment the student was criticizing.
    That being said, how about Brian’s question about a time and place for everything? Indeed there is, and I wonder the student’s motivation in choosing graduation to air his complaints. Why not a different venue, maybe distributing a leaflet at school, publishing the criticisms in the school newspaper, or disseminating it through social media platforms? Instead he took the risk of spoiling a time of happiness and celebration for students and their families, which suggests he was marching in an egotistical, self-indulgence parade.
    What concerns me the most is that the student “sucker-punched” school officials with a lie of omission. He misrepresented the content of his speech. He did a lousy job of coping with a challenging situation by avoiding and elevating the message above his personal honor. That action speaks poorly of his values, and from that perspective, the officials were quite justified in cutting him off.


  2. His criticisms very likely would not have been allowed to be published in the school newspaper, and he could have been punished for distribution of unapproved leaflets at school. I don’t know what social media policies the school might have as that wasn’t a thing when I was in high school, but I know that in our public school system the school newspaper’s content had to be approved by the administration before publishing, and any literature distributed at school likewise had to be approved. I suspect he did it this way because it 1) kind of proved his point, and 2) didn’t really give the administration an opportunity to come up with a harsh punishment (like not allowing him to walk/graduate with his class…seems it would be far more difficult to exclude the valedictorian and class president during the actual ceremony, in front of his parents and everyone else).
    That all being said, part of growing up is learning when and how to air grievances, and it seems that he has some work to do in that area. I think the whole situation is a teachable moment all around…the school should take a look at setting up a better system for allowing students to get ideas, suggestions, and constructive criticism heard (and taken seriously if presented seriously), and the student who aired his complaints at graduation should be admonished for his bad timing, deception, and tactlessness. It should be pointed out to him that in his future job, publicly calling out his bosses would not be considered professional and would likely result in termination or at least screw up his chances for advancement.


  3. Excellent points, Nikki, especially about school policies limiting options available to the young man for getting his position “out there.” Nice proactive points at the end in that respect. Reading your last sentence got me to thinking: Would this kid be more likely to be a “whistle-blower” if he observed something unethical or illegal going on at his place of employment? That question never occurred to me.


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