The current senior speech guidelines are fair in most situations


Sonia Kharbanda

The current senior speech guidelines limit certain language and references to make speeches appropriate for the broader community. Some seniors have had their speeches modified to meet these guidelines.

Where do we draw the line for free speech? What is acceptable to say in a particular setting but not in others? What should an individual be allowed to share in a senior speech to the entire community, and when should the school become involved?

The senior speech guidelines, which are shared with every senior and are easily accessible, detail the limitations of a speech. Students cannot name a specific individual or group of “current or past students, current or past SPA employees, and family members of current and past students and employees” in a negative way. As is true in most school settings, “profanity, vulgar and offensive language, and references to illegal behavior” are also restricted content, according to the senior speech guidelines. Some speeches involve additional approval from parents if they reference sensitive or private topics.

These requirements are in place for a variety of reasons. Since senior speeches are delivered to a broad and diverse audience, some jokes or stories may not be deemed appropriate for the larger community. If students had truly “free” speech, these freedoms could be misconstrued to include offensive or hate speech.

With many potential concerns in mind, the senior speech guidelines appear reasonable, but in practice, can seem arbitrarily enforced and do not always have the intended effect.

With these potential concerns in mind, the senior speech guidelines appear reasonable, but in practice, can seem arbitrarily enforced and do not always have the intended effect. What happens when a student wants to mention a specific negative experience with a member of the community in their speech? Many wonder why the accused appears more protected from public shame than the person who experienced the issue. Sometimes, the administration aims to protect speakers from libel by limiting their freedom of speech. Students should be able to criticize negative aspects of their SPA experience, but it is reasonable that they should not target specific members of the community—with that ability, any speaker could use their platform to call out anyone, for any reason, which misses the objective of senior speeches.

Furthermore, speakers should not be allowed to use their five minutes to spew offensive rhetoric. The disagreement lies in what is seen as offensive and in what situations are appropriate to make these “jokes.” Obviously, the school cannot regulate what students say, think, or post in their private time or on personal social media, but in a public speech to the wider SPA community, even jokes that could be perceived as hateful should not be tolerated.

Much of the debate surrounding senior speeches is made through second-hand information. For this reason, it is challenging to uncover why certain speeches have been modified and others have been allowed. Students must know what the guidelines entail so they understand the decisions made behind the scenes. Still, if these guidelines are not followed—if the administration is censoring speeches without reason—students should be able to object to this issue.

Senior speeches are a unique opportunity for each member of the graduating class to present their own narrative in front of the entire school. They are a distinct form of sharing—senior speeches are among the most public events SPA offers; anyone can attend, and the dates for specific speakers are common knowledge. There is no requirement for evidence or balanced perspectives. Senior speeches are also personal; every student walks away from hearing a speech knowing the speaker a little bit better. This memorable tradition should allow speakers the ability to share something they care about within the guidelines of what is appropriate to include in the broader SPA community.