A recent graduate of Prague (Oklahoma) High School has been told that she will not be awarded a diploma until she apologizes in writing for using the word “hell” in her valedictorian speech.
According to the account I read, the offending quotation had something to do with the movie Eclipse: The Twilight Saga.
Nootbaar [the girl’s father] said, “Her quote was, ‘When she first started school she wanted to be a nurse, then a veterinarian and now that she was getting closer to graduation, people would ask her, what do you want to do and she said how the hell do I know? I’ve changed my mind so many times.’”
The girl refuses to provide a written apology, justifying her refusal thus:
Everyone is entitled to their own opinion and is free to comment however they choose. It’s one of the great advantages of living in a free country. A country where we are free to speak.
In this interesting stand-off, both parties are in the wrong.
The school is overstepping its authority in withholding the diploma. Both the graduation ceremony and the piece of paper that accompanies it are symbolic of work completed. With or without the diploma, the girl has completed the coursework. She has graduated. The school has no legal right to withhold the diploma or her transcript.
The girl, on the other hand–4-point average notwithstanding–has failed to learn the first thing about the educated use of language. Certainly she has a legal right to say “hell,” but she should have learned from her English classes that context determines the appropriateness of word choice.
The expression “how the hell do I know” may be common enough in informal speech between friends, but in the context of what for the people of a town with a population of 2,378 is an extremely important and solemn occasion, it was not appropriate.
Free speech is a precious political right. The ability to fit language to context is a useful social skill.