May 31, 2007 — -- High school valedictorian Shannon Spaulding never expected her graduation speech to create such debate.
But the blond honors student, who graduated at the top of her 383-member class at Wolfson High in Jacksonville, Fla., gave a valedictory speech that some said sounded more like a sermon.
For nearly 20 minutes, Spaulding quoted the Bible and spoke about Jesus Christ, suggesting that those who didn't believe would go to hell. "I want to tell you that Jesus Christ can give you eternal life in heaven," Spaulding said. "If we die with that sin on our souls, we will immediately be pulled down to hell to pay the eternal price for our sins ourselves."
"I guess I don't totally understand why it's such a big deal," she said.
At many points during her address, the crowd offered enthusiastic applause. But a handful of parents, as well as some civil liberties groups, have cried foul.
"If you are Jewish and you hear this and are told to convert or die, you might get upset by that," said the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.
The Duval County schools superintendent, Joseph Wise, issued an immediate apology, saying, "On behalf of the Duval County Public Schools and Wolfson High School, I deeply regret that the student exercised her time in her valedictorian speech in a manner that was offensive and insensitive to some. I applaud the principal, faculty, staff and graduates in their efforts to quickly return the ceremony to its intended and dignified purposes as soon as the speech was completed."
Was Shannon Spaulding exercising her right to free speech? Or did her valedictory address violate the civil rights of others?
Legal experts say that all depends on whether school officials had read and approved her speech.
"If the school retains the authority to review the message, then it becomes the school's message," said Randall C. Marshall, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.
He adds, "If what the district has done is allowed unrestricted student-led messages, then it's constitutionally permissible under the law. It would have been equally as permissible for a student to launch into a 20-minute diatribe about how terrible the school system is, or comment on just about anything else."
The courts have ruled in a number of such cases. In one, Nicholas Lassonde vs. the Pleasanton [Calif.] Unified School District, a high school salutatorian who wanted to include what were considered "proselytizing" comments in his graduation address claimed the school violated his freedoms of religion and speech by editing his message. A California appellate court found in favor of the school district, saying it had the power to edit the student's comments.
Before Lassonde's graduation, which took place before the court's ruling, the student and school reached a compromise, and he was permitted to speak about his faith and what it meant to him, but passages aimed at swaying the crowd's religious beliefs were omitted. He was also allowed to distribute an unedited text version of his speech just outside the site where the graduation ceremony was held.
"Occasional or brief reference to the role religion has played in the life of the student is permissible, according to the law. But to turn the opportunity for a student address into a sermon is inappropriate at a public school graduation," said Lynn.
In Shannon Spaulding's case, school officials said they had asked to review the text of her speech, but because Spaulding was in the midst of final exams, she didn't finish writing it in time.
ABCNEWS.com obtained an internal memo from a member of the superintendent's executive staff, which called the speech "wholly inappropriate" and claimed that Spaulding purposely concealed the contents of her speech and "played the adults who had trusted her to behave responsibly, and she betrayed that trust."
Shannon Spaulding, however, tells a different story. She said administrators failed to provide any guidelines about the length or content of her speech , and never pressured her to provide a copy.
"They knew I was busy trying to get everything else ready, so they just said, 'Don't worry about it.' They knew I would get it done," she said.
"I can't say I'm sorry for the message I shared. I'm sorry if people were offended, but I still believe in what I said."
"It was not seen by any administration officials," said Duval County schools spokeswoman Mary Anne Christensen. "She had such a great record academically, so the fact that no one had seen her speech didn't raise any red flags."
At this point, Christensen said there is no mandatory policy in place for reviewing valedictory speeches.
"If you're asking whether or not there should be one," she said, "that is currently being reviewed."