Terrifying Teen Speech in the News Again

What kind of democracy teaches its young people they'll be punished for talking out of turn?

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If there's one belief that unites Americans, it's that First Amendment freedom of speech is a good thing.  Everybody should have it: cigarette companies, SuperPACs, hate groups, Todd Akin, Cher, and Nichole Ritchie.

Teenagers, not so much. They might say something wrong. Better to shut them up.

The last time the issue of impudent teen speech came up in this column, my comments page was swamped with suggestions that the problem wasn't free speech, it was rudeness. Teens, you see, can't be allowed to be rude. The saucy-teen issue has surfaced again, this time in the person of a high-school valedictorian in a small Oklahoma town who used the phrase "what the hell" in a graduation speech and has been punished with the withholding of her diploma.

What the hell?

Is this really how a free country treats its young adults? And will the "good manners" brigade rally around this latest episode of petty grown-up bullying?

Kaitlin Nootbaar topped her class at Prague High School in Prague, Oklahoma.  She has won a full scholarship to Southwest Oklahoma State University, where she hopes to study biology. Any sane school would be boasting about her.

But Prague High Principal David Smith has apparently decided to punish Kaitlin because in her valedictory address she said that, when people ask her what she wants to be, she responds, "How the hell should I know? I've changed my mind so many times." According to Kaitlin and her father, Smith said there will be no diploma until she tenders a written apology. Kaitlin, bless her spunky heartland heart, has refused.

The manners brigade is sure to point out that Kaitlin was required to submit her speech in advance, and that the text she submitted used the word "heck."  She has told reporters that in the excitement of the moment, she used "hell" instead -- in part because it echoes the graduation speech in Twilight: Eclipse.

If that's true, she's guilty of nothing more than bad taste in entertainment, and Principal Smith should be apologizing to her for the poor education she received.  But what if this saucy miss actually intended all along to say "hell," and submitted the bowdlerized text to prevent the Principal from stopping her? Surely that makes her the offender, and Principal Smith the victim?

The hell, you say.

Remember, we are dealing with a student who has done everything our system asks of her -- excelled in school, won college admission and a scholarship. In exchange, she is offered a brief moment to say what she thinks. But there's a catch: The censor must approve every thought and every word. She is free to say anything the principal wants her to say.

Every free citizen should know how to outwit a censor, and applaud others who do the same.

If Kaitlin was sneaking "what the hell?" past the censor, it did little injury to the Class of 2012 at PHS -- a school whose official mascot is the Red Devil. There's no call for revolution, violence, free love, or atheism. Any of those might cause a ruckus and bring genuine offense. (Just to be clear, I think a school valedictorian has a right to talk about those things, too, and I wish more did -- but Kaitlin didn't.) If the audience at Prague's graduation is like the ones at graduations I attend, most of them probably didn't even notice the word fly by. And if some people didn't like it, they had every right to criticize Kaitlin. They don't have the right to shut her up.

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Garrett Epps is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He teaches constitutional law and creative writing for law students at the University of Baltimore. His latest book is American Justice 2014: Nine Clashing Visions on the Supreme Court.

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