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Students' speeches back on program

May 30, 1998

By GUY FLETCHER

Staff Writer

INWOOD, W.Va. - A Mussleman High School honor student who was told earlier this month he would not be able to deliver a valedictorian address at graduation was told Friday evening by school officials he can now give the speech.

Erik Nowak, co-valedictorian at the school, said he was told by Berkeley County Board of Education President G. William Sonnik III that speeches by him and three others would be included in Sunday's ceremony.

"I'm happy that they decided to allow me to give the speech. I'm more elated that they decided not to eliminate everyone else, too," said Nowak, a Bunker Hill, W.Va., resident.

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Sonnik said that during a meeting of school officials Friday afternoon it was determined that a student's right to free speech "far outweigh anything else," and that's why the speeches are being permitted.

On May 20 Nowak and the other students who were to speak at commencement were informed that their part of the program had been cut. Principal John Cole said the speeches needed to be eliminated to keep the program from running too long.

But Nowak believed it was his speech, which chastised the school for placing more emphasis on athletics than academics, that got them removed from the program.

One part of his speech, which lasts less than four minutes, reads, "I am not condemning athletics. But I am disturbed by the position it holds in relation to academics. I do not place the blame with the participants but with those at the top of the organization, because in an organization, leaders are responsible for promoting the vision that leads to great achievements by its members."

After his speech was cut by the school, Nowak and his family sought help from the Rutherford Institute, a Charlottesville, Va., conservative think tank that typically battles religious freedom cases.

But Ron Rissler, legal coordinator for the organization, said Erik's case is similar to its other work.

"Erik, when he enters that school, does not lay aside his constitutional rights," Rissler said.

Rissler said he spoke with school officials in recent days about overturning the earlier decision, but was originally met with opposition. But with the promise of a legal action if the speech wasn't allowed to be made, school officials changed their mind Friday, he said.

Asked if he thought the threat of litigation was what made the school officials change their mind, Rissler said, "I don't think that. I know it was."

Sonnik disagreed. "I didn't know there was any threat of litigation," he said.

If the school officials hadn't changed their mind, the Rutherford Institute would have sought a temporary restraining order to prevent the commencement ceremony from taking place without the speeches, Rissler said. If that wasn't successful, the organization was prepared to file a lawsuit to seek damages after graduation, he said.

"We think they were in violation of his constitutional rights. That's a violation of federal law," Rissler said.

But he added that it was better that the matter was settled the way it was.

"We definitely wanted to get something resolved and not go to litigation," Rissler said.

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