August 30, 2012

Dr. Rick Martin Superintendent of Schools Prague School District U.S. 62 Prague, OK 74864

Dear Dr. Martin, We are deeply concerned about your decision to withhold a diploma from Kaitlin Nootbaar, valedictorian of the Prague High School Class of 2012. We understand that, in her speech at the graduation ceremony, Ms. Nootbaar used a word that some audience members may have found offensive, and that, as punishment, the district is not allowing her to graduate. We urge you to reconsider your decision. Ms. Nootbaar has a First Amendment right to free expression and should not be punished because somebody may have been offended by a single use of the word “hell” in her speech. “Hell” is neither obscene nor lewd; it is not a pejorative, and it is not defamatory. In this case it was being used to express the intense confusion and anxiety experienced by a graduating student as she enters adulthood and is bombarded with questions about her still uncertain plans. It appears that Ms. Nootbaar’s use of “hell” was inspired by a current cultural phenomenon, the Twilight series, popular among her peers and many teenagers worldwide. In one scene in the film Twilight Eclipse, the valedictorian poses the same rhetorical question to her audience. Suffice to say, many if not most of the students present at the ceremony have seen this film and many others which have used the word hell as a passing intensifier. While valedictory speeches are heard by a diverse audience of parents, teachers, administrators and others, their message is especially directed to the speaker’s classmates. The speech is an opportunity for an exemplary student to address her peers and comment on their shared experiences, challenges, hopes and fears before they

separate. With this in mind, it is even more troubling that you would penalize a student for speaking frankly in a way that would resonate with her peers on their graduation day. Kaitlin Nootbaar is an exemplary student and the Prague High School should be proud to have played a role in her accomplishments and success. But even if Ms. Nootbaar were an average student and not an honors student, her rights to free speech would remain and the decision to withhold the diploma she has so clearly earned would still impinge on those rights. As Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas wrote in the case of Tinker v. Des Moines: "It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate." Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 U.S. 503 (1969) If we can be of assistance in this matter, please do not hesitate to contact us. Sincerely,

Joan Bertin Executive Director National Coalition Against Censorship

Chris Finan President American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression

cc: David Smith, Principal, Prague High School

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