When Marvin Wright became president of the senior class at Southwest Edgecombe High in Pinetops, North Carolina, last fall, he was told that he’d have to give a speech at graduation in June. But Wright’s joy over finishing high school and addressing his classmates was marred last Friday. After Wright chose to deliver his own heartfelt speech instead of an administrator-penned five-sentence paragraph, the school withheld his diploma.
I feel like it violated the First Amendment.
Now concerns about alleged censorship and retaliation on the part of the school have sparked a controversy in Edgecombe County, which is about an hour east of Raleigh. “From what I learned in class, I feel like it violated the First Amendment,” Wright told The Wilson Times. “I couldn’t say what I wanted to say and when I tried to say what I wanted to say, there was consequences.”
After Wright read his speech and the ceremony concluded, the graduates picked up folders containing their diplomas, transcripts, and report cards. But there was no folder for Wright, who was told that the school principal, Craig Harris, had removed it because he read his own speech.
“I was upset and embarrassed,” said Wright. “All of the seniors was walking around with their bright orange folders and I, being the last one in my class, (was) walking out with nothing in my hand.” The teen didn’t get his diploma until Sunday afternoon, when Harris dropped it off at his house.
The 18-year-old told The Washington Post that he worked on his speech for two weeks, had it approved by his English teacher, and left a copy on Harris’ desk. However, Wright said he was told at graduation practice that he wouldn’t be allowed to deliver the speech, with no explanation why.
As senior class president, I think I should read my own speech.
At the ceremony, instead of Wright’s speech, a folder containing a paragraph written by the school was on the podium. But rather than reading the school’s remarks, Wright pulled out his phone, pulled up a digital copy of his speech, and read it from the device.
“I was like, ‘I really worked hard on this speech and as senior class president, I think I should read my own speech,’ and they was like, ‘No, this is what you are going to read,’” he told the Times.
Wright’s speech covered tried-and-true ground. He thanked God, his family, and the faculty at Southwest, and he referenced shared experiences familiar to the graduating students, like their “first Friday Night Lights football game in which we were able to stay out late and hang with our friends.”
In a statement to the Times, Superintendent John Farrelly said that he didn’t have issues with the content of Wright’s speech. “There is an expectation that is communicated to all graduation speakers that the prepared and practiced speech is the speech to be delivered during the ceremony. That was made extremely clear to the speakers,” said Farrelly.
When the teen’s mother, Jokita Wright, complained to Principal Harris, the administrator said that her son had missed a submission deadline. Marvin Wright told the Post he wasn’t informed of a deadline. Indeed, if the school’s class president normally gives a graduation speech, wouldn’t the staff member assigned to work with that student make sure that everything is on track?
Farrelly acknowledged that it was wrong for the school to withhold Wright’s diploma, but he also took issue with Wright using his phone on stage. “There is a communicated expectation to all of the speakers that no electronic devices are allowed,” he said. “The student did not follow those expectations.”
But if Wright’s speech had been in the folder, he wouldn’t have had to use his phone.
As the news of what happened to Wright spreads, the school’s Facebook page is being bombarded by outraged commenters. Some folks are suggesting that Wright sue the school, but most are disturbed by what they see as unecessary “vindictiveness” and the silencing of a student’s voice.
“His skill, confidence, and writing with clarity, emotion, and positive humor is a positive reflection on the quality of the Edgecombe County Public Schools,” wrote Facebook commenter Joan Baille Almerini. “He makes your programs look good, you should be proud of him and his initiative in writing such a heartfelt yet polished piece to honor his school. As an educator myself, I would be proud of having a former student give a speech like this.”
As for what comes next for Wright, it seems he will be defending democracy. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy on Monday.
Screenshot image via WRAL