There is new unrest among students in Prague. No it is not a new Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia. This is Prague, Oklahoma where the valedictorian at Prague High School, Kaitlin Nootbaar, was denied her high school diploma for saying the word “hell” in her graduation speech. It would however seem to be in keeping with the school’s mascot: the little Devil (below).
Nootbaar spoke about how when she first started school she wanted to be a nurse, then a veterinarian. However, now as she is about to graduate, she doesn’t know and when people ask her she says ‘How the hell do I know? I’ve changed my mind so many times.” Her script originally said “heck” but she used “hell” in the excitement of the moment. When she later went to pick up her diploma, the principal refused to hand it over and told Kaitlin she would have to write an apology letter before he would release the diploma. Her father is irate that after getting straight As, the school has added a new condition on receiving her diploma.
Nootbaar is scheduled to start college where she appears to have tentatively decided “what the hell she wants to do”: she wants to study marine biology.
Notably, while countries like England have effectively decriminalized profanity recently, American towns continue to arrest or fine people for using foul language, including a recent a new measure in Massachusetts. Even lawyers can find themselves on the the wrong side of the line on swearing.
I have no problem with school officials barring swear words. Even though “hell” is pretty mild and commonly used, some people find it offensive or inappropriate. She made a mistake. However, that should be a matter of a stern lecture and perhaps a request for an apology. The withholding of a diploma seems to be rather draconian in the circumstances.
I am not sure that the school has such authority since Nootbaar has technically already graduated. I believe it did have the authority to bar her from the ceremony or even remove her due to conduct unbecoming a speaker. Courts give schools broad leeway on such questions. However, she completely the course work as well as the ceremony. I am not sure that she is technically still a student under the jurisdiction of the school. What do you think?
Notably, “hell” is not one of the seven deadly words that you cannot say on television as stated by the late George Carlin. Those words are below but I warn that the video includes words that would not be appropriate in a graduation at Prague High School.