, ,

School Speakers Will Promise To Stick To Script Under New Appleton Guidelines

Critics Charge New Rules Giving Superintendent Authority To Censor Are Too Broad

Graduation cap says "for hire"
Butch Dill/AP Photo

All speakers at graduation ceremonies and other events in the Appleton Area School District will have to submit their speeches ahead of time and swear not to deviate from the script, under a set of guidelines approved Monday by the school board.

The rules have been criticized as unconstitutional, and at least one Wisconsin legal advocacy group says it will be “monitoring … very closely” the way it’s enforced for potentially unlawful discrimination.

Stay informed on the latest news

Sign up for WPR’s email newsletter.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

The rule stems from a June graduation speech by the Rev. Alvin Dupree, who is also a school board member.

Dupree’s daughter was graduating from Appleton North High School, and Dupree was one of several speakers that day. At one point in his speech, he said that “for me, my source of strength is my faith, and my belief in my Lord, Jesus Christ.” The statement received some applause, so Dupree paused and said, “It sounds like I have some believers in this room. If you’re here and you believe, go ahead and clap your hands.”

At the end of his speech, Dupree made another reference to his faith.

“It was typed out to say ‘best wishes,’” he said, referring to the pre-written script. “But I’m changing their script to say what I would say: God bless.”

Dupree, whose church is Family First Ministries, did not respond to WPR requests for comment. He told the Appleton Post-Crescent this week that “the only thing I’m apologetic about was the (length) of my speech — 10 minutes. Too long.”

Under the new administrative guidelines, which came up for a vote at the school board on Monday, the district’s superintendent would have the authority to review and censor any statements in speeches in order “to ensure compliance with state and federal law, and to accomplish other, legitimate District purposes.”

“The opportunity to speak at a school event is a privilege, not a right,” the guidelines read.

The guidelines don’t mandate that any specific references be struck from speeches. They leave that to the superintendent’s discretion. Dupree and one other board member voted to replace the guidelines; but five members of the board voted against replacing them. It was the first time the board had taken any formal action on the new guidelines.

Anthony LoCoco, senior counsel for the legal advocacy group Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, said Dupree’s comments at the graduation were neither unconstitutional nor inappropriate.

“It was abundantly clear to everybody there that he was speaking in his personal capacity” as a pastor himself, LoCoco said. “It wasn’t the district speaking … He did not cross the line, and it’s unfortunate that there was such a negative reaction to his comments.”

LoCoco cited a 2000 case out of Nebraska where a graduation speaker spontaneously recited the Lord’s Prayer. A lawsuit in that case was thrown out because the district did not know in advance that the speaker planned to lead a prayer.

More recently, the U.S. Supreme Court in 2014 ruled that it was lawful for government agencies to open public meetings with prayers. And a federal judge in September ruled that a Wisconsin woman who wrote religious messages on Valentine’s Day cards and distributed them at Green Bay’s Northeast Wisconsin Technical College had her First Amendment rights violated when the school ordered her to stop.

LoCoco said whether these guidelines result in a legal challenge will depend on how they are implemented. He did call it a concern, and said WILL “is going to be monitoring what the (superintendent) does very closely” for evidence of discrimination under the new guidelines.

“Experience teaches that when you give a public official that kind of control over the content of a speech, unlawful viewpoint discrimination often results,” he said.

He added that in a larger sense, the district is overreacting to Dupree’s speech.

“The district is not doing its students any favors by trying to shield them from what the government fears might be offensive to some people,” he said.