Victory: Rutherford Institute Protects Valedictorian’s First Amendment Right to Talk About God in Graduation Speech Without Being Censored

by: Staff Writers May 31, 2024

TAMPA, Fla. — After being ordered by school officials to remove religious references from his valedictorian speech, a Florida high school senior was eventually able to give his full, uncensored speech at graduation as a result of The Rutherford Institute’s intervention.

Lucas Hudson, a valedictorian of the Collegiate Academy at Armwood High School in Hillsborough County, Fla., was ordered by school officials to remove religious references from his graduation speech or he would not be permitted to speak at all. Lucas’ family turned to The Rutherford Institute for help. 

After Rutherford Institute attorneys warned school officials that their actions could expose the school to a lawsuit, Lucas was permitted to give the speech of his choosing. As Lucas’ father wrote, “Your defense of Lucas became an inspiration for the students in his school and sparked a healthy and meaningful debate among the teachers, students, and parents about the value of the First Amendment and the need for limits on government control over our personal beliefs. Thank you for being there for my son when he needed you most.”

“If America’s schools are to impart principles of freedom and democracy to future generations, they must start by respecting the constitutional rights of their students,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “While the government may not establish or compel a particular religion, it also may not silence and suppress religious speech merely because others might take offense.”

As valedictorian of the Class of 2024 for the Collegiate Academy at Armwood High School, Lucas Hudson was provided the opportunity to give a graduation speech in May 2024. Lucas’ planned speech thanked the people who helped shape his character, reflected on how quickly times goes by, and briefly urged people to use the short amount of time we have to love others and to serve the God who loves us and who sent his son, Jesus, to save us. However, after submitting his speech to the principal, Lucas was told that his speech would not be accepted unless he reduced and changed the religious content. 

Although Lucas modified his speech, the religious message was still not acceptable to school officials who told Lucas that he needed to “make appropriate adjustments” to his speech by the next day or he would not be speaking at all. Lucas then changed his speech to include only a short sentence about the privilege of knowing the God who saved him.

In coming to Lucas’ defense, The Rutherford Institute warned school officials that their actions violated the rights to freedom of speech and the free exercise of religion under the First Amendment, Florida law, and the School District’s policy. As Institute attorneys explained, in addition to the protections under the First Amendment, the “Florida Student and School Personnel Religious Liberties Act” provides that student speakers at graduation ceremonies be given a limited public forum which does not discriminate against the speaker’s voluntary expression of a religious viewpoint. The law also requires school districts to give a disclaimer at all graduation events that the students’ speeches do not reflect the endorsement, sponsorship, position, or expression of the school district. This makes it abundantly clear that the speeches are solely the private expression of the students and not that of the school. School officials eventually agreed to allow Lucas to speak freely about his religious beliefs in his valedictorian speech at graduation.