The Case of the Mildly Profane Valedictorian

Time to apologize, Kaitlin. What the hell.

Kaitlin Nootbaar graduated from Prague (Oklahoma)High School in May and was named valedictorian, for her grades were exemplary. As is the policy, she submitted her planned graduation day speech to the school administration. It contained this passage, apparently a reference to the “Twilight” films:

‘When she first started school she wanted to be a nurse, then a veterinarian and now that she was getting closer to graduation, people would ask her, what do you want to do and she said how the heck do I know? I’ve changed my mind so many times.’”

In the excitement of the moment (she says) Kaitlin said “hell” instead of “heck.”

To her shock, the school’s principal informed her that it would withhold her diploma until she formally apologized. Her father is backing his daughter completely, and argues that this is illegal, and infringes on Kaitlin’s right to free speech.

I almost made this an Ethics Quiz, with a multiple choice answer to the question, “Who is in the wrong?”  The options:

a) Kaitlin

b) Her father

c) The school

d) All of the above

e) None of the above

I decided, however, that I didn’t want to suggest that I had any doubt about the answer, which is what usually spawns the quizzes. The correct answer is d).

They all are wrong.

Kaitlin is wrong because she double-crossed the school. If she submitted text with “heck,” she was obligated to say “heck.” If she intended to say “hell” all along, she lied. If she said “hell” by mistake, then she should apologize. There really aren’t any other ways to look at it. Civility is an important value that schools need to continue teaching despite the efforts of the popular culture to undermine it. It isn’t up to a student to decide that prohibiting profanity in a formal school ceremony is old-fashioned and silly; it’s the school’s ceremony, and she is obligated to respect them. The school can assume, especially in Oklahoma, that there will be adults in the audience who were raised never to swear, never to swear in public, never to swear in front of women, and to regard swearing by women as a social horror. It doesn’t matter that these are notions that are slowly dying out: that was Kaitlin’s audience. It is rude and disrespectful intentionally insult members of your audience, embarrassing your school in the process, and if you do insult them, the ethical thing to do is to apologize. [Update: Commenter Loraine M. points out that the quote she used from “Twilight” uses “hell,” but she submitted a version with “heck.” This strongly suggests that she knew “hell” was inappropriate and the the school would not permit it. Her comment is here.]

Kaitlin’s father is wrong because he should not encourage his daughter to avoid accountability for what was, at best, a mistake. I agree with him that the school holding his daughter’s diploma hostage is excessive, and possibly illegal, but if he did his job as a parent properly, it wouldn’t have come to that. The issue isn’t whether Kaitlin has the right to say what she wants (although it is well established that schools can set reasonable standards for graduation speeches); the issue is whether she was being unfair to the school and disrespectful of her audience to exercise that right as she did. She was.

The school is on the firmest ground, ethically. It needs to set standards, and needs to exact appropriate punishment when it is defied by a graduating senior in a fête accompli like this, with the student pulling a last minute change that embarrasses her school and says, in effect, “Nyah-nyah! Can’t touch me now!” If this year’s Valedictorian gets away with an unapproved “hell, the 2013 edition will try a spontaneous “fuck,” the 2014 star student will use “mother-fuck,” and soon the Prague High graduation will sound like a hip-hop concert. If you don’t think civility is the ultimate slippery slope, then you haven’t been watching TV or paying attention to politics that last few years. As Joe Biden would say, “This is a big fucking deal!”

The school is still wrong, however. Withholding Kaitlin’s diploma is extortion, and while it’s not dispositive, I have to say that this degree of retribution over “hell” for a school that calls itself “The Red Devils” is pretty strange. It should give her the diploma she earned, no strings attached, and Kaitlin should then apologize, because it’s the right thing to do. Failing that result, the school should just expunge her name from the honored list of past Valedictorians, and for that next Valedictorian planning on sneaking “fuck” into his speech, have a specific penalty on the books before graduation day.

________________________________________

UPDATE: The superintendent of schools has posted a statement on the matter. It does not change my conclusion. I think that Nootbaars are being jerks about the whole episode, and I believe Kristen will eventually regret that manner in which she left her home community. The opinions of members of the town who support Kristen do not burnish her case. One says that she should be allowed her incivility because she was a good student, as if that should have any bearing on the matter. Another says that the school should let her refuse to apologize  because she’s graduated and they can’t really do anything to her—in other words, she can get away with it, so why object? They are weak in ethics in Prague, apparently.

Here is the statement:

 “My name is Rick Martin. I am the Superintendent at Prague Public Schools. This morning two news articles involving our school district and Kaitlin Nootbar [sic] , the valedictorian for the class of 2012, were brought to my attention. Unfortunately, I have not had any communication with any member of the Nootbar [sic] family regarding this matter. It has been reported that the district is denying Ms. Nootbar [sic] a diploma because of a statement made during the 2012 graduation exercises. My comments are limited to those matters already released to the media by the Nootbar [sic] family.

Valedictorians for Prague Public Schools earn this title through the achievement of academic excellence. Our school has traditionally allowed the valedictorian to speak as part of the district’s graduation ceremonies. Speakers are allowed significant freedom in their remarks but all speeches must be approved in advance as being appropriate for graduation exercises. In this case, Ms. Nootbar [sic] prepared an appropriate speech, which was approved by the high school principal. Unfortunately, she did not present the speech as written and used language that was inappropriate for a graduation exercise. Therefore, the high school principal requested a private apology for her transgression before releasing her diploma. His request was both reasonable and in keeping with established federal caselaw interpreting the First Amendment.

________________________________________
Pointer: Popehat

Facts: KFOR

Graphic: Thfire

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at  jamproethics@verizon.net.

70 Comments

Filed under Education, Etiquette and manners, Family, U.S. Society

70 responses to “The Case of the Mildly Profane Valedictorian

  1. tgt

    If the apology was for saying a word different from what was in the speech, you’d have a point. That’s not what they want. They want an apology because of a mild oath.

    Kaitlin is only wrong in of going off script. She’s right not to give the apology the school desires of her. She’s also right to refuse an after the fact and unethical regulation.

    I also don’t see anything from the father that is wrong here.

    • brian

      The key here is to separate the actions. If she submitted the speech with heck, and then said hell was that wrong? If so she needs to apologize for it. Try to avoid the fallacy of mood affiliation for a second, it’s not about how you feel about the word hell.

      The fact that the school is acting like a dunce does not remove her obligation to apologize when she makes a mistake. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

      Just curious, but what is a mild oath?

      • tgt

        I covered your complaint: “If the apology was for saying a word different from what was in the speech, you’d have a point. That’s not what they want. They want an apology because of a mild oath.”

        Damn, dang, darn, hell, and heck are all mild oaths in today’s parlance.

        • brian

          Thanks for the explanation of mild oath, I did not know what that phrase meant.

          Where have you heard their justification for wanting the apology?

          Regardless, the apology should not hinge on the question of who’s behavior is worse. I think the school’s behavior is worse, but that does not excuse her poor behavior. That’s your argument about refusing an after the fact regulation. It’s true that ex-post regulations are unethical and she is right to argue that withholding her diploma is wrong. But that does not make her mistake ok or absolve her of her responsibility.

          I agree with your sentiments that on the whole the school is acting far more irresponsible then she is. But to the question of is her behavior appropriate I have to say it’s not, although it’s very mild.

          • tgt

            Where have you heard their justification for wanting the apology?

            I’m making an assumption here, as I can’t comprehend a synonym switch causing this punishment, but I have been chastised by religious people for cursing.

            I’m actually going to change one of my opinions here. If the issue was just a synonym switch and not going word for word on her approved speech, then refusing to apologize would be just as right. The apology signifies that the regulation was valid, which would be inappropriate.

        • How do you feel about “Tarnation!” and “Dagnabbit”?

      • A mild oath is an oath that was once considered profane, and now is regularly used by 6th graders, and is only offensive to people who wear formal attire to movies and the grocery store.

    • The fact that you aren’t bothered by profanity just doesn’t carry the day. They want an apology because of what you feel is a mild oath, but many in the audience regard it as profane—I was taught that; my parents would have been offended. There was no need for the word change, none at all. She didn’t just go off script, she went off script using a word that would not have passed the review. It’s not an “unethical regulation”—that’s absurd. the school has every right to ban profanity, obscenity, or contractions, for that matter. References to stupid books about vampires. She can agree to follow those rules, or not speak.

      • tgt

        They want an apology because of what you feel is a mild oath, but many in the audience regard it as profane—I was taught that; my parents would have been offended.

        My parents didn’t allow heck. Clearly, the school was unethical for allowing that into the speech. Heck and hell are synonyms with essentially the same force today. She replaced one mild oath with another, likely unintentionally. While it was technically not in the written speech, it’s not “going off script”.

        While “you can’t say hell” maybe be an ethical regulation, if it wasn’t mentioned beforehand, it is unethical. Also, having a right to do something does not make it ethical.

        There’s nothing in the story that suggests that Kaitlin chose not to follow a known regulation.

        • My parents didn’t allow heck.
          No wonder you’re the way you are.
          Clearly, the school was unethical for allowing that into the speech. Heck and hell are synonyms with essentially the same force today.
          I don’t think so. Heck is an accepted euphemism for Hell, which is still regarded as profane. I’ve never heard of anyone being offended by “heck” or “darn”. (Ned Flanders says “heckfire” and “darn.”)
          She replaced one mild oath with another, likely unintentionally. While it was technically not in the written speech, it’s not “going off script”.
          Do you really believe this? I doubt you’ll have many takers. Hell is stronger than heck. Come on.
          While “you can’t say hell” maybe be an ethical regulation, if it wasn’t mentioned beforehand, it is unethical.
          If you mean it is unethical to punish her for saying something she had no reason to believe would be offensive, I agree. I doubt she did not.
          Also, having a right to do something does not make it ethical.
          Sure, but any regulation I make in my own house, building, business or school that is not oppressive cannot be unethical. If I don’t want to hear profanity, or my guests to hear it, then that is my fair option.

          There’s nothing in the story that suggests that Kaitlin chose not to follow a known regulation.
          But she did make a material change in the script that just happened to involve what many in the audience would regard as offensive language.

          • sbp

            Do you really think MANY in the audience would regard “hell” as offensive? In my part of the country (East Coast), I would think the number would be so small as to render the change immaterial.

          • tgt

            Honestly, I don’t see any difference between Hell and heck, just like I don’t see any difference between damn and darn. Am I in the minority here?

            “Material change” is just like your “off script” statement. You’re begging the question.

            Also, Your ethical regulation threshhold is silly. First, you’re a private citizen here, not a government actor. It’s not oppressive to say that nobody can mention pets in school, but it is unethical. Second, you begged the question with the term oppressive.

        • brian

          I keep seeing this basic argument in your writing. The school is unethical/hypocritical/stupid for their behavior X/Y/Z so Kaitlin should not be held responsible for her behavior. The school’s behavior has no bearing on the students responsibility when they make a mistake.

          I agree that objecting to the substitution of one mild oath for another seems petty. I agree that any ex-post punishment for doing so is not appropriate, and she may very well have not been aware that she was breaking any rules. All that does not change the fact that what she said offended some people in the audience. She should apologize for that offense.

          An example, had she said ‘heck’ instead of ‘hell’ and a member of the audience complained to the school about the language, should there be an apology, and if so from whom?

          • tgt

            I did not intend to make the argument you suggest. I may have been unclear.

            My position is that Kaitlin didn’t do anything wrong, so there’s nothing to apologize for. If the regulation actually was “you can’t say hell”, and it was known to Kaitlin, then she would be in the wrong for agreeing to it and not following it.

      • Bill

        My father would wash my mouth out with soap if I said heck or dang it becuase even though they werent the same as hell and damn it as far as he was concerned they meant the same thing and my intent was the same as if I said the profane ones.

  2. Michael

    When I was valedictorian, the salutatorian and I were told that if we deviated from our scripts, we would not graduate. We gave a combined speech that lasted less than 3 minutes because they would not approve anything we wanted to say and we didn’t want to say anything they approved.

    I think you are right on about all of them being wrong. The schools shouldn’t be controlling these speeches to the extent that they are, but if she agreed to it, she agreed to it. The father is wrong for encouraging this type of juvenile behavior at the graduation and backing it up. If my brother and his friends had been punished for sneaking a grill, charcoal, hot dogs, and buns onto the field for graduation, my father would not have protested. There is a risk with such behavior and you may be held accountable.

    If she couldn’t give the speech she wanted, she could have refused to speak. That would have required relinquishing her status as valedictorian. Being ethical sometimes has a price.

  3. Steven

    I think I am leaning more to tgt position. I can agree that an apology from her may be appropriate but the actions of the school are much more unethical, they have escalated to extortion. The diploma represents her entire school career not just that one moment in time where she said hell.

    • tgt

      I can no longer justify the apology in any case. The girl switched one minor oath for another. This is a case where the slippery slope argument of Jack’s fails, as we didn’t go down the slope, we went sideways on the slope.

    • That’s not tgt’s position, its mine. I said the school was being excessive, but she has also placed them in a difficult position, because there are limited ways to punish a graduating senior. She caused the problem, and she could have prevented the impasse by apologizing. That makes her the most culpable by my analysis..

  4. sbp

    “If she submitted the speech with heck, and then said hell was that wrong? If so she needs to apologize for it. Try to avoid the fallacy of mood affiliation for a second, it’s not about how you feel about the word hell.”

    Respectfully disagree on this point. I don’t think you can invoke the fallacy of mood affiliation in this case, as it is central to the controversy. Imagine if she had submitted the phrase “as we gather for our graduation,” but substituted “as we gather on the day of our graduation.” Would you call that a mistake which requires an apology? The word “hell” is SO inoffensive that its inadvertent use should not be held to a different standard.

    • It’s inoffensive to you. That’s completely irrelevant. If the school said, “Whatever you say, don’t say “rutabaga,’ because our oldest graduate, who will be in the audience, lost her only child when he choked on a rutabaga”, the girl agrees, submits her speech with the sentence, “The government can’t tell you to eat broccoli” and at the podium substitutes rutabaga, she’s wrong, wrong, wrong, and whether you think one vegetable is as offensive as another does not matter one bit. She school has every right to decide on what it feels is proper decorum, speech and deportment for its ceremony. It’s no different from speaking someone else’s wedding or funeral. And the school doesn’t have to tell the girl why it doesn’t want “hell” or “rutabaga,” either.

      Now IF, and I doubt this, the Valadictorian had no inkling that “hell” would be inappropriate, then I could be persuaded that she is the victim here. That seems unlikely.

      • tgt

        There is no suggestion anywhere that the school said “You can’t say hell” prior to the speech.

        What seems unlikely to me is that the school would spell out a policy where you can’t say hell to all their speechwriters. I can see them having a no cursing policy, but hell is no more of a curse than heck.

      • sbp

        Well, your “If” is precisely why I am persuaded she did nothing wrong. Because as far as I’m concerned, “Hell” has not been considered offensive in the slightest since the days of Beaver Cleaver. Accordingly, unless the school had issued a list of offensive words, I would not consider it reasonably forseeable that “hell” is verboten.

        • brian

          The logic that all things out of bounds need to be specified, and any behavior not specified is therefore acceptable is not logical.

          Regardless, I don’t think the issue here is what is and is not offensive. If someone took offense, and it’s a reasonable offense then the speaker should apologize. I take George Carlin’s view of curse words and still listened to the Dead Kennedy’s, the story about the ‘Too Drunk to Fuck’ lawsuit is a classic, but my personal view of what should be considered offensive is not the correct barometer here.

          She went off script, and what she said while going off script was offensive to someone in the audience. The fact that she did not, or could not, have foreseen the offense makes the simply, “I’m sorry”, all the more obvious to me.

          • sbp

            I didn’t say all things out of bounds need to be specified, I said if it is not reasonably forseeable that something is out of bounds, it needs to be specified. Which is a logical conclusion. As to going off script, I already addressed that point with the example of another innocuous off script statement. If someone in the audience had taken offense to “as we gather for our graduation,” rather than “as we gather on the day of our graduation,” I would say no “I’m sorry” is called for. Their offense is their problem.

          • tgt

            […] but my personal view of what should be considered offensive is not the correct barometer here.

            Correct, but the school administration’s view is also not the right barometer. Using “hell” in a speech to supposed adults is not obscene or profane by any current, rational standard. You have to use religion to make it bad, and that’s a nono.

          • tgt

            She went off script, and what she said while going off script was offensive to someone in the audience. The fact that she did not, or could not, have foreseen the offense makes the simply, “I’m sorry”, all the more obvious to me.

            I’m sure heck would have been offensive to someone in the audience is well. Would she have to apologize for that, too? Maybe she said the word emon, and that was offensive to someone, should she apologize for that? If the offense taken is ridiculous, no apology should occur.

            • tgt

              I meant ‘lemon,’ not ‘emon.’ Though, I guess my point works with nonsense words as well.

              Also “as well” instead of “is well”

              • brian

                Right, the ‘heck’ situation was one I brought up earlier. If she submitted a speech with ‘heck, and she said ‘heck, and someone in the audience was offended then if anyone needs to apologize it’s the school.

                This is the heart of the argument. The school, by reviewing the speech, is accepting responsibility for the appropriateness of the speech. If they approve a speech and the speaker goes off message in a way that can reasonably be considered offensive, then the speaker needs to accept that they are the responsible party and apologize. Otherwise, the people who took offense do not know if they should take issue with the speaker or the school, without responsibility there is no accountability.

                Now, reasonable people can disagree about what words are offensive, I don’t think any on there own are, but I can understand why some people would view ‘what the hell’ as offensive.

            • You’re sure? I’m not—in fact, in Ned Flanders, famously mocked for over 20 years on TV’s Simpsons as being the ultimate weenie and prude, uses “heck” routinely, I am very dubious that anyone other than complete aberrations object to heck. In fact, you are the first person I’ve ever heard suggest it. ROLL CALL: Does anyone else out there think “heck” is offensive or know anyone who would think so? NED???

  5. Lorraine M.

    In the Twilight movie, the graduate making the speech uses the word “hell.” Kaitlin’s written version of her speech substituted “heck.” Her conscious decision in this regard strongly suggests that Kaitlin knew that “hell” was inappropriate in the context of her graduation speech or, at the very least, likely would be considered inappropriate by school authorities. Any claim otherwise at this point is highly suspect. An apology is warranted.

  6. Eeyoure

    Great thread, great comments! I agree with Jack, but…I agree with tgt too. I’m glad brian mentioned “petty,” because that is how I perceive the behavior of all principals in the situation – especially, the unnamed, unknown and presumed existent principals who were, or who might have been, offended by the student’s use of “hell.”

    There is a double standard in play here, akin to what many of us have experienced with users of the “n-word.” But “hell” doesn’t even come close to stinging like that word; it’s a mild oath, like tgt calls it, not a personalized de-humanizing hate-dart. I have lived long, but I have yet to meet anyone offended by “hell” in the “how the hell” context who is other than someone who reveres above all literature, a Bible that practically covers every known ancient synonym for hell – literature that the so-easily-offended (petty) souls revere as the “Infallible Word Of God.”

    After reading Jack’s post and before reading the comments, my first reaction was to wish I could get into Kaitlin’s face like I would if I was her Dad and, intending a combination of encouragement and admonition, say:

    “GIVE ‘EM ‘HECK!’ Oops! Too late…so, apologize privately to the school principal…and be ready – and willing – to apologize to others, if any of them tell you that you offended them when you said ‘hell.’ Just pick up your diploma, and be done with it all – no sense in piling petty on top of petty. That would be just making life unnecessarily hellish for yourself.”

    • tgt

      Just apologize to the officer for giving him the eye after he admittedly stopped you because you were black. Until you apologize, you’re staying in jail.

      Defying petty tyrants is not petty. it’s noble.

  7. Sharon

    I have found that one of the best ways to get a teenager to dig her heels in and become even more entrenched in her position is to hold something of great importance over her head until she is willing to relent and do as she is asked.

    • Your teen is like that too, huh? Well, that makes me feel a little better.

      • Bill

        My father told me that the best way he knew to get me to do something was to tell me I couldnt. Although it back fired when when he told me I could never trick my older brother into doing something as my brother was too smart to be tricked by me. And that is how my older brother broke his arm trying to fly off our garage with my home made wings.

  8. zoebrain

    I feel a formal non-apology apology along the following lines is appropriate:

    I inadvertently used the accurate quote from the movie, rather than the bowdlerised version, a mistake for which I solely am to blame, and must apologise for. I’m sorry.

    I’m also sorry that some hypocrites found that word offensive. It was not my intention to offend, but I guess you can’t please everyone. I make no apology for that.

    I’m particularly sorry that the school administration has, by their reaction to this, been exposed to worldwide ridicule. I’m sorry they have made themselves a public laughing-stock.

    • Despicable. But that’s about as jerkish as her conduct.

      • zoebrain

        I think the first part is unobjectionable, no?

        I think the third oart is true too. The most charitable interpretation is that the school’s actions were regrettable, and have left them being objects of derision.

        The second part… jerkish. It could usefully be omitted, though I think it accurately reflects her beliefs. In fact, it’s because it accurately reflects ger beliefs that it should be omitted. It’s undiplomatic.

        • The fact that it has left the school as objects of derision is no credit to Kaitlin, but part of her shame. Doing the right thing frequently results in derision, especially when it involves enforcing rules on relatively trivial matters (though civility isn’t trivial.)

          The second part should be omitted because it makes the apology meaningless. I think Kristen is a burgeoning jerk, and her father is helping to make her so. Instead of learning a useful lesson about consideration, manners, honesty, respect and accepting responsibility for mistakes, which the school is trying to teach her (its job, after all), she is defiant. Odds are that she will become an even bigger jerk in college: most people do.

          I wouldn’t hire her.

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