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Sarasota County senior says commencement speech is being 'censored'

Sarasota senior says commencement speech is being 'censored'
Posted at 10:23 PM, May 20, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-20 23:20:58-04

OSPREY, Fla. — Zander Moricz had his graduation and graduation speech on his mind since he started attending Pine View School in Osprey.

"I was elected for the first time freshman year and elected every year since so this is a speech I've actually been thinking about for years," he said.

But the four-time class president told ABC Action News that the speech he'd always dreamed of giving changed after House Bill 1557, also known as the "Don't Say Gay" bill, was signed into law.

The law prohibits school staff from talking about sexual orientation and gender identity with kids in Kindergarten through 3rd grade.

Moricz is openly gay and said, among other things, the law is a threat to LGBTQ+ students who may see school as a safe space.

"I came out first at school," Moricz said. "That's where I gained the confidence to be publicly gay," he said.

He feels so strongly about this, he and several others are currently suing the governor, the Department of Education, and others, to stop the law from being enforced.

In order to better understand where the line is between First Amendment rights and a school district's obligations when it comes to graduation speeches, we sat down with Bay area lawyer Jonah Dickstein—who is a member of the First Amendment Lawyers Association.

He said the U.S. Supreme Court has heard several cases involving the First Amendment and graduation ceremonies in the past. And they have determined that a school can't restrict speech unless it "substantially disrupts the work and discipline of the school" or promotes something "elaborate, graphic, illicit or illegal."

"Well, the U.S. Supreme Court has dealt with scenarios where speakers have, at these types of events, made sexual innuendo-type comments, that were really beyond the pale," he said. "And, we really wouldn't expect to see that here even if sexuality is the topic."

Ultimately he said when it comes to determining "what's appropriate" in Moricz's speech, there's a bit of a gray area.

"I think that if it makes people uncomfortable, that's not a justification by itself, but if it goes to the point where they're really disturbed then it could a basis to restrict some of the speech. But the first amendment does not end where somebody might feel slightly uncomfortable that something is being discussed that's not the line," he said.

In the end, Moricz saidhe still plans to give his revised speech and release the original version at a later date.

"I wrote a speech that I feel allows me to defend my human rights without threatening a celebration that hundreds of my friends have worked for. It's not the speech that I wanted to give, but it's a speech that does what I needed the original speech to do," he said.

The 2022 Pine View School graduation ceremony will be held May 22.