Proud Queer Valedictorian censored in high school graduation speech

Eastern Regional High School Valedictorian Bryce Dershem wanted to share with fellow graduates that while the pandemic was lonely for them — they weren’t alone.

Eastern Regional High School Valedictorian, Bryce Dersham pictured after his graduation speech was muted by school administrators in Voorhees Township, New Jersey. Photo: Bryce Dersham / Instagram

August 12, 2021

By Jameela Hammond

The sun kisses the quarantined skin. A breeze sweeps through the stadium. The smiles hidden by a pandemic of loneliness and isolation. Laughs that fill a stadium of catching up with classmates. Microphone feedback while the tech guy makes his last tweaks. The father, looking for his son to take a picture of the momentous occasion. Speakers going over their lines. School administrators enforcing social distance and masks upon entry. Students grappling with their own identity and mental health — just trying to make it through the day.

When it was Eastern Regional High School’s Valedictorian Bryce Dershem’s turn to speak, he wanted to share with his classmates that they weren’t alone in their struggles especially during the pandemic — in an unauthorized speech. Dershem ditched his school-approved speech and talked about how hard it was when he came out as queer in his freshman year. Principal Robert Tull realized Dershem was making an unauthorized speech and unplugged the valedictorian’s microphone. Within a minute into Dershem’s speech, video showed Tull walk behind the graduation stage and unplug some cords, then the microphone cut out. Dershem continued with his memorized unauthorized speech

In previous news reports, Dershem said, “As it was happening, passion was surging through my veins that, yes, I need to give this speech because this is the exact kind of stigma that I want to fight against.”

The school district has asked the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights to see if the school did anything wrong. According to previous news reports, the Eastern Regional Camden County High School District Superintendent Robert Cloutier instructed school district attorney Anthony Padovani “to contact an appropriate government agency to conduct an independent review.”

Senior Legal Counsel for the Student Press Law Center (SPLC), Mike Hiestand

explained that it will be difficult to prove this was discrimination and if it violated the First Amendment. Hiestand said, “The discrepancy that came up, also extends to graduation speeches, meaning graduation speeches are school sponsored speeches, they take place as part of the official graduation ceremony. The school is providing the mic and the speakers and the chairs. It's clearly going to be considered school-sponsored speech.”

Hiestand said, “If there is some sort of showing that it was specifically because this speech had LGBTQ sort of ramifications and that was what prompted the censorship. As long as the approval process wasn't just blatantly discriminatory, and generally school districts are a little more careful than that. It could be a tough case.”

Student’s freedom of speech has been a continued discussion that has evolved since the historical case — Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 U.S. 503 (1969). In that groundbreaking case, Mary Beth Tinker and her brother exercised their freedom of speech as they wore a black armband to school to mourn the dead on both sides of the Vietnam War. The Supreme Court ruled that public school officials cannot censor student expression unless they can reasonably forecast that the speech will substantially disrupt school activities or invade the rights of others. The Court’s decision established First Amendment rights for students in public schools.

Heistand said, “As the court got more conservative, they started to have buyer's remorse and that's when they started recognizing that they could pull back from Tinker. One of the first things they did very quickly is recognize the distinction — they hadn't before between school-sponsored speech and non-school-sponsored speech.” Hiestand said, “Now, when they do that. The practical effect of that is that so many more people now know of his speech. Then his intent to give it and why he was giving it then would have known before. It got out there in ways. When you censor it automatically jumps it up a bit, in terms of people wanting to actually read it and see what was censored.

Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U.S. 260 (1988) changed the course of school-sponsored speech. In the Hazelwood case, the school newspaper challenged the censorship of its school officials. The Courts ruled that it would allow school officials to get involved in censorship of speech, not just when it is disruptive for the schools.

Although the First Amendment has continued to evolve in regards to student free speech, Brandi Levy made headlines as that teenager that took her school district to the Supreme Court in Mahanoy Area School Dist. v. B.L. when they suspended her from the school cheerleading team after she dropped numerous F-bombs on her Snapchat. Recently, the Courts ruled in an 8-1 vote that the former cheerleader was protected under the First Amendment. Because Levy was off campus, the Courts agreed that the school had no right to punish Levy for exercising her right to free speech.

Hiestand, who also spearheaded the SPLC’s Amici in the Mahanoy case, which is a “friend-of-the-court” brief, was joined by like-minded organizations that are committed to protecting free speech rights of student journalists, both on and off campus. Levy isn’t a journalist, but it was important for Hiestand to protect student free speech. He provided more insight on how he was able to differentiate being on Snapchat and journalism. “We mainly looked for uses of primarily social media, but off campus speech that weren't just middle fingers and F bombs and things like that. (People that) were actually trying to do, kind of locally, acts of journalism, where they were people who were really committed to going after the truth and providing that truth to, to their readers, to do what journalists do.”

Dersham, who spent six months in treatment for his anorexia in his senior year didn’t think he would graduate or even become valedictorian; now, he’ll be going to Tufts University. Dersham also has become an honored guest speaker in the LGBTQI+ community, making his first appearance at the Pride in Pitman celebration — sharing his once unapproved graduation speech.

While it remains unclear where Dershem’s case will go, free speech or discrimination, Hiestand admitted, “Unfortunately, legally, the law is not especially protective of students when they give graduation speeches. It's just lousy, that they're 18 years old, they're about to become full fledged citizens, and we're still telling them, you can't say the things that you feel you need to say.

For future free speakers, Hiestand shared a motto that they used on the Tinker free speech bus tour, “say what you need to say.”

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