As the recent controversy surrounding this year’s graduation speech at the Wheatley School has raised questions about free speech, it’s worth considering the distinction between an individual’s rights while functioning as a private citizen and their rights while serving as a representative of an institution.
Clearly, the First Amendment protects the right of each of us to express our opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or any other political issue without being subject to any form of punishment from the government. However, this does not mean that it is appropriate for someone who holds a position in which they represent an institution to the public to use that platform to advocate for their own personal political views.
For example, if an employee of a company serving in a customer-facing role wishes to express controversial political views that may cause customers to become alienated from the company, it is fitting and proper for the company to prohibit the employee from doing so and to fire them if they refuse to comply.
When Huda Ayaz spoke at graduation, she was serving as a representative of the school community, selected by the school to speak on its behalf. As such, the school had a legitimate interest in ensuring that her speech was appropriate for the circumstance. A high school graduation is a celebration of the accomplishments of all the graduates present, people of varying races, religions, ethnicities, and yes, political persuasions.
It is reasonable for a school to require that speeches given at a graduation steer clear of controversial political topics that may leave some subset of the graduates and their families feeling alienated. As such, there is good reason that many in the community have chosen to criticize Ms. Ayaz’s decision to politicize such an event.
In matters of free speech, the U.S. Supreme Court draws a distinction between subject discrimination and viewpoint discrimination, with the former generally being permitted by the Constitution and the latter prohibited. For example, suppose that a citizen attempted to use the community comments at a school board meeting to rail against Obamacare. If the school board were to prohibit them from doing so on the grounds that it is not relevant to the school district, this would be subject discrimination so long as someone taking the opposite position was treated the same.
However, if the board shut down a student who criticized the district’s policies while allowing students who praised those same policies to speak, this would be viewpoint discrimination and hence unconstitutional. A viewpoint-neutral prohibition on using graduation speeches to address certain controversial political issues would be considered to be subject discrimination and therefore would not infringe the First Amendment.
Those who responded to Ms. Ayaz’s speech by shouting racial epithets behaved in a way that goes against our core values as Americans. They do not speak for the Jewish-American community. I condemn their actions in the strongest terms, as I expect that most Jews on Long Island would do.
However, the fact that a few individuals responded to her speech in an inflammatory manner does not negate the fact that her actions are also worthy of criticism nor should it be seen as morally tainting the overwhelming majority of those who support the State of Israel, who do not engage in such behavior and instead strive to show respect and tolerance for people of all backgrounds.