Joshua High School staff coerced valedictorian Remington Reimer to twice alter his graduation speech and after he spoke out at graduation June 6 against censorship the student faced threats that his military academy appointment would be sabotaged, according to a Liberty Institute legal filing.
"They transformed a student speech into government speech," said Hiram Sasser, who was retained by Reimer as legal counsel and is the director of litigation with the Liberty Institute. "It stopped being Remington Reimer's speech and became a government official's speech."
The Joshua ISD is being asked to publicly exonerate Reimer of any wrongdoing in the circumstances that led to his microphone being cut off during his valedictory speech and further to commit to following the policies set by its board of trustees, according to the legal filing sent June 13 by Sasser to trustees and Superintendent Fran Marek.
The legal filing has called for a meeting with Marek by or before June 24 to address issues raised by Reimer and the Liberty Institute.
"What to us is the real disappointing part is that a school official threatened to write a letter to the U.S. Naval Academy, where Remington has an appointment, and disparage his reputation," Sasser said.
In the letter to the Joshua ISD, it is alleged that on June 7 in a meeting with Remington's father Todd Reimer – a teacher at JHS – principal Mick Cochran said he "intended to punish Remington for his perceived misdeed" and that specifically he would send a letter to the U.S. Naval Academy advising them that Remington has "poor character, or words to that effect."
But Cochran doesn't recall making such a threat in a meeting with the student.
"I didn't threaten Remington," Cochran said. "I sat down with him in my office after the incident and just told him that I just wished that he would have spoken to me about what he was wanting to do before all this happened. We shook hands, I wished him great success at the Naval Academy and he left my office and that was it. I thought all of this was behind us."
Some emails sent to high ranking district officials and trustees have called for Cochran's resignation.
Policy was violated by school officials, not Reimer, Sasser alleges.
"The school board has the right policy in place that seems to serve the community well," he said. "The school officials didn't follow that policy."
But the JISD is standing behind its policy. The district's policy FNA (local) provides for the review of valedictorian, salutatorian and class historian speeches for such things as obscene language, slander, intellectual property rights, defamatory speech and anything that might interfere with school activities or the rights of others.
"We have to make sure that students are not going to get up and engage in any of this speech (just mentioned)," Marek previously told the Joshua Star. "So we pre-approve the speeches. And students were told that, if they deviated from their pre-approved speech, their microphone would be turned off. You have to protect policy. We followed policy here. It had nothing to do with what he said."
But because of the policy, review is not necessary for any element not specifically addressed by policy, Sasser said.
Four members of JHS staff reviewed the first two versions of Reimer's speech and ultimately reviewed a third version prior to approval, Sasser said. No portion of the speech Reimer delivered contained obscenity or vulgarity, he continued, adamantly denying rumors that Reimer engaged in defamatory speech once the microphone was cut off.
"That's just not true," he said.
Because district policy establishes graduation as a limited forum, school officials can't control speech through pre-approval, Sasser said, and must include a legal disclaimer on the graduation program.
That disclaimer was not printed in the program. If it had been, it would have identified Reimer's speech as the private expression of him and not a reflection of a position of school trustees, the JISD, employees or any other graduate. The absence of that disclaimer is "Exhibit A" that district policy was not followed by school officials, Sasser said. That disclaimer was on graduation programs at both neighboring Burleson high schools.
"They are transforming student speech into government speech," Sasser said. "It just felt to Remington that this was wrong through the whole process."
Marek posted the following response on the JISD website following commencement ceremonies:
"The district has reviewed the rules and policy regarding graduation speech, and it has been determined that policy was followed at the Joshua High School 2013 graduation ceremony. The valedictorian, salutatorian and class historian speeches were reviewed in advance by the campus staff, prior to the graduation ceremony. Student speakers were told that if their speeches deviated from the prior-reviewed material, the microphone would be turned off, regardless of content. When one student's speech deviated from the prior-reviewed speech, the microphone was turned off, pursuant to district policy and procedure."
But changes made to Reimer's speech was in violation of that policy, Sasser said. He's clear about what Liberty Institute's expectations are of the JISD.
"It would be nice to get written assurance from the district that policy will be followed in the future and that they will not say disparaging and untrue things to harm Remington's future."