2015 Winning Essay

"Law In Society: The Commencement Debate" 
by Remy Oliver
Dominion High School

Pressuring school officials to disinvite commencement speakers – or protesting against those who do speak – is increasingly common. Prospective commencement speakers who have made controversial public statements (such as retired neurosurgeon Dr. Benjamin Carson, whose views on homosexuality and same-sex marriage outraged GLBT supporters) or who served in prominent political positions (such as former Vice President Richard “Dick” Cheney and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, whose roles in George W. Bush’s administration made them pariahs with segments of the population). Thus, the student-led objection to the proposed appearance of speaker Angel Bradford, CEO of dairy conglomerate Glo-Bo Bovine, is not without precedent. At issue is whether Bradford’s invitation may be rescinded, what her rights are (or are not) to speak, and whether she has recourse to sue for defamation.

Statler and the Animal Rights Club (ARC) have no legal right to prevent Bradford from speaking publicly. However, they are within their rights to seek her removal as the proposed Rocktown High School (RHS) commencement speaker by attempting to convince school administrators that disinviting Bradford is a sensible course of action given the purported animal welfare controversy. Statler and the ARC are on less solid ground in demanding that Bradford also be disinvited from speaking at the Greater Rocktown Preparatory High School (GRPHS) commencement since Statler is not a student there and the ARC may not be recognized as a legitimate/chartered student organization. RHS, as a public school hosting the graduation ceremony on publicly-owned property, appears more vulnerable to pressure than GRPHS, a private high school likely holding its commencement on private property. No information is available on whether ordinances are in place that may control access to, or prevent protests on, school grounds. Frisby v. Schultz (1988) upheld a Wisconsin ordinance that prevented protest outside of a residential home. It stated that “regulations of the time, place, and manner of expression which are content-neutral, [and] are narrowly tailored to serve a significant government interest, and leave open ample alternative channels of communication” are constitutionally valid.

Bradford has the First Amendment right to express her views; however, neither RHS nor GRPHS is obliged to provide her a forum for expression. While the separate decisions of Principals Henry and Jefferson to rescind Bradford’s invitation are based upon stated concerns regarding “bad publicity,” neither school is obligated to host her. Boy Scouts of America v. Dale (2000) allows a group to bar someone membership when “the presence of that person affects in a significant way the group's ability to advocate public or private viewpoints.” Henry and Jefferson – as administrators and presumably as advocates of free speech and diverse ideas – could insist that Bradford’s invitation stands. They would be within their rights to either resist or submit to public pressure, as could occur in other scenarios. School policy takes into account the needs of the institution, its staff and students, and the community. If Bradford’s role as commencement speaker divides the student body and the community, then the principals should act in the best interests of their students and the general peace. They legitimately could disinvite Bradford.

Statler’s action in amending and expanding the online petition, which subsequently went viral, increased media coverage of the issue. A fair question is how widespread the outrage against Bradford’s selection really is since online petitions may contain anonymous parties or fraudulent signatures, making them difficult to authenticate. Whether 500-plus people objected to Bradford’s selection is questionable. Statler and ARC have no legal power to force RHS and GRPHS to take a particular action. The First Amendment favors Henry and Jefferson, and supports the principals’ right to choose whomever they deem appropriate as the commencement speaker (a form of protected speech in and of itself). The effort to compel them not to choose a particular speaker violates the schools’ right to self-expression as a legal “person” of sorts, albeit not in the same vein as a corporation. RHS (as an extension of the federal government) and GRPHS (as a private school) are free to act so long as those actions are held to be constitutional.

As a private citizen, Bradford has no legal standing in the school principals’ debate. As an invited guest, she has no right to demand to appear in a specific venue.

Bradford may sue Statler and the ARC for defamation, the legal definition of which is “any intentional false communication, either written or spoken, that harms a person's reputation; decreases the respect, regard, or confidence in which a person is held; or induces disparaging, hostile, or disagreeable opinions or feelings against a person.” The key word here is false. Assertions that Glo-Bo mistreats animals absent evidence that it does not follow approved, legal farming practices qualifies as defamation because the statements are false and are intended to provoke hostility against Bradford. Statler’s action in updating and expanding the petition following Principal Henry’s decision to rescind Bradford’s RHS invitation suggests that she and ARC want to stop Bradford from speaking in any forum. This effort to quash her ability to speak publicly could harm her reputation since Statler and ARC appear to be attempting to paint Bradford as a supporter or advocate of animal abuse who is unfit to address impressionable audiences. In reality, Bradford is the CEO of a successful corporation that employs potentially controversial but nonetheless legal animal husbandry methods. Legally, Statler and ARC have attempted to damage Bradford’s reputation in Rocktown (and with media coverage, possibly beyond that), resulting in her invitation to speak at GRPHS also being rescinded.

In summation, while Statler and the ARC may generate public debate and pressure the schools to drop Bradford as commencement speaker, school authorities have no legal obligation to do so. The two high school principals acted within their authority to withdraw the invitation to Bradford to speak, and Bradford has no legal standing to demand to address either graduating class. Bradford is within her rights to sue for defamation over the inflammatory statements made by Statler and the ARC.

Updated: May 11, 2015