Not to Remain Silent

A fascinating drama was recently played out at the graduation ceremony of West High School in Salt Lake City, Utah. It was a revealing illustration of a controversial new "right" that seems to have emerged recently—the right to be protected from exposure to any truth claim you do not want to hear. It began when a student objected to references to "God" and "Lord" in two of the songs that the choir planned to sing at the ceremony. Never mind that the songs were traditional favorites at the school; the student in question insisted they were "offensive" and "violated her civil rights." So she did what is becoming all too common. She sued the school. The Federal Court of Appeals in Denver ruled in her favor, enjoining the choir from singing the songs at graduation. That would have been the end of it except for an undaunted student named Will Badger, who, during the ceremony, stood up and took the microphone. He proceeded to invite the audience to join in the singing of one of the banned songs. School officials tried their best to stop this "criminal activity." Police rushed the stage and escorted Will from the platform while the audience continued singing in defiance. At latest report, officials are examining videotapes of the ceremony to ferret out the guilty singers, who face discipline and could be expelled from the school. This would be a humorous incident if it weren't a classic and tragic example of how the courts have come to view the issue of private dissent. Three years ago, in Lee v. Wiseman, the Supreme Court ruled that a young woman could not be required to remain respectfully silent during a nondenominational prayer at a junior high school graduation. The prayer was banned. Why? Because it would cause her psychic injury and violate her First Amendment rights. In effect, the Court created a constitutional right not to remain respectfully silent. But more than this, it permits what might be called the tyranny of the individual—in which one person can obstruct the rights of the majority. If the student had been requesting the right not to participate, that is something we can all agree upon. She could be excused, opt out as Christians often do in sex-education classes. But she was demanding something more: that the majority be prevented from singing songs that she didn't agree with. Ironically, in the same graduation program, class valedictorian Gregory Brinton described his feelings when he and his family visited China and stood in Tiananmen Square, the place where democracy was dealt a bloody blow in 1989. Brinton told his fellow classmates: "May our graduating class stand strong to never, never let the precious freedom of expression . . . be trampled on as we go forth through this world." A society that isolates itself from competing truth claims will inevitably descend into oppression and tyranny. Remember that when your secular neighbors talk about church and state. We aren't forcing anything on anyone except the duty of civil exchange, which is the hallmark of a free society. And we need to remind our friends and school boards that the best way to train young people to interact in the marketplace of ideas is, first of all, to learn to listen respectfully.


Chuck Colson


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