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Speechless in Texas

By The Associated Press


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Speechless West Brook High School salutatorian Joanna Li, of Beaumont, Texas, poses at her home on May 30.

BEAUMONT, Texas — The salutatorian of West Brook High School was forced into speechlessness at her graduation ceremony last week.

Her planned speech — stressing the importance of avoiding burnout and remembering to have fun — was deemed inappropriate for the occasion by the school's principal, who refused to let her deliver it.

"I didn't want to do the traditional speech about dedication, effort and perseverance, because I think that's overdone," Joanna Li, 18, said of her speech, which was meant for the graduation ceremony June 1.

But principal Terry Ingram said he felt the speech was not acceptable.

"I did not want to embarrass her or the school or her family in addressing the student body," Ingram said in the June 1 edition of The Beaumont Enterprise.

Li, who will attend Baylor University in the fall and major in music, said that when she turned in her first draft of the speech last week, Ingram talked to her about it.

"He asked me if this was how I really felt, and I said 'yes' because they were my feelings, so he said 'OK' and handed it back to me," she said.

The day before graduation, Ingram called Li's mother, Sherry, and told her that there was a problem with the speech because it had what he considered a negative tone, she said.

So Li rewrote the speech that night, with the guidance of two of her teachers, and resubmitted it the morning of graduation.

But when Ingram talked with Li again that afternoon, he still said no. Li's father, Kuyen Li, the chairman of the chemical engineering department at Lamar University-Beaumont, told the Enterprise that he then called the principal at home to talk about the problem.

"He said he already made up his mind and he would not let her give the speech," he said.

Ingram said he held fast to his original decision because "It was revised, but my opinion was that I did not feel like I was going to allow her to read it." He did not want to elaborate on what he felt were the unacceptable elements of the speech, The Beaumont Enterprise reported.

In a landmark decision in January 1988, Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment rights of students in public schools are not necessarily equal to those of adults in other settings and must be applied in light of the characteristics of the school environment.

In the speech, which The Beaumont Enterprise printed in its entirety, Li said that when she entered high school, she loved to read.

"Wave a book in front of me and I would grab it, devouring every word, reading purely for pleasure," she wrote. "I loved to learn — I had wonderful teachers that saw the interest and fed it."

But as time went on, she wrote, "my intentions changed. Grades became more important than learning. The pressure for a high GPA was so great that school felt like one giant pressure cooker," she wrote.

"And then I learned my most important lesson," she continued. "I learned that while I wrote papers, read books, worked problems, and aced tests, I missed out on things — real things, new things, beautiful things — that now I'm scrambling to make up."

Her speech mentioned extracurricular activities such as dancing, acting and tennis "that made school worthwhile." And it concluded:

"Life is a gamble. Why not? Why not? As we leave this building tonight, well prepared by teachers and under the eye of God, the world awaits us."


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By Ken Paulson First Amendment provides all the guidance we need for these ceremonies: Public schools must respect students' rights to freedom of speech, religion.  06.02.02

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Analysis 'The decision effectively overruled Tinker,' says Fraser.  04.17.01