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:
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.
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