May 17, 2023 - Politics

Free speech collides with school graduation ceremonies

Illustration of a pile of graduation caps

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

How students can show their pride at graduation in Colorado is becoming a touchpoint in the debate about free speech in education.

Why it matters: The conversation comes amid the spring graduation season and makes Colorado yet another state to grapple with whether First Amendment protections end at the schoolhouse door.

Driving the news: A senior at Grand Valley High School in Parachute is the latest to test the boundaries. Naomi Peña Villasano, 18, wants to wear a sash that symbolizes the American flag on one side and the Mexican flag on the other to celebrate her dual culture.

  • Her parents came to the U.S. from Mexico and she was born in Colorado.

What's new: A state law signed earlier this month allows students to wear Native American tribal regalia — such as beads, feathers and other symbols — as part of their required graduation attire.

Yes, but: That does not extend to items and symbols from other heritages and ethnicities.

The intrigue: The governor and lawmakers believe students should have more leeway because of protections in the First Amendment.

What they're saying: In a signing statement accompanying the new law, Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, argued that the First Amendment allows all students to display "sacred symbols of faith or culture" if they don't interfere with the ceremony.

  • "This legislation makes clear graduating students have First Amendment protections at their graduation ceremonies and further promotes a Colorado for all," Polis wrote.

The other side: Most Colorado schools allow students to decorate their graduation caps with personal expressions but don't allow other material over the required graduation gown.

  • Garfield County school administrators told CPR they worry if Villasano wears the sash it opens the door to other symbols, such as the Confederate Flag, and "would discourage… the unification of our graduates and distract from the celebration of our students' great academic accomplishments."

The big picture: A handful of other Western states, including Utah, have passed laws allowing Native American regalia at graduation but other expressions remain verboten.

  • In 2021, a high school graduate in North Carolina was initially denied his diploma for wearing a Mexican flag over his gown.

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