FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Some high school seniors are looking to leave their last mark as they go off to live new lives as college students or go out into the workforce.

For some, that means speaking out against Florida’s Parental Rights in Education law, known among critics as “don’t say gay,” and speaking up in favor of LGBTQ+ rights.

One such student is Zander Moricz, who says he is his school’s first openly gay class president and the youngest public plaintiff in a lawsuit against the state law. Moricz, 18, a Sarasota County student who drew national attention for his activism this week, is part of a trend of teens who experts say are engaging in civilized dissent as more restrictions in Florida kick in. They say they’re practicing American democracy, which they feel is threatened.

It remains to be seen how many, if any, students will speak out at South Florida’s upcoming graduation ceremonies, though students already have been outspoken at demonstrations they’ve led in recent months. On a Friday in March, students at Western High School in Davie joined high schools around the state to protest the “don’t say gay” law.

Will more protest-related speeches happen at graduation ceremonies? In Broward, it already became a concern last year. Rachel Cheng, Western High School’s 2021 salutatorian, delivered a heartfelt speech in June 2021 that mostly decried racism and bigotry but also included comments about the tumultuous politics of the Middle East that some people viewed as anti-Semitic.

To prevent similar speeches this year, Broward high schools formed small committees of faculty and administrators to review speeches before graduation ceremonies. Before that policy, only a school’s principal approved speeches. Now those same committees could warn students to steer clear of speech they’ve deemed too political or controversial, such as speaking out against “don’t say gay.”

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“I can’t imagine we wouldn’t let these kids say that at graduation,” Broward School Board Member Sarah Leonardi said. “But I guess never say never.”

Cheng, who uses she/her and they/them pronouns, said Friday that they feel very strongly that limiting students’ speeches, when they’re standing up for human rights and equality, goes against free-speech protections.

Cheng said a graduation speech should include accolades for the senior class, but that “conforming to the stereotypical congratulation speech cannot always be the answer — as it does not, and will never, address the minority groups in each school.”

Striking a balance

Still, schools would be well within their jurisdiction to do so, according to Clay Calvert, a professor at the University of Florida who specializes in First Amendment law. Because graduation ceremonies are school-sponsored events, allowing controversial or political speech would come across as if the school condoned that viewpoint.

“I think schools have to weigh this and be sensitive to the sense of political speech involved,” Calvert said. “They’ll need to try to strike a balance regardless of what the law is here. A graduation speech would be considered school-supervised speech, though it’s not technically part of the curriculum.”

The speech could still be characterized as part of the school curriculum, whether it occurs in a classroom, as long as it’s supervised by faculty members, he said.

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Students who don’t speak at graduation but who show up wearing Pride flags, pins, stickers or other types of apparel are more likely to be protected by courts.

Schools could enact content-neutral rules that prohibit students from decorating caps, gowns and other graduation regalia in general, but can’t target LGBTQ+ Pride paraphernalia specifically.

Broward and Palm Beach county school districts did not respond to requests for comment about district policies for graduation speeches.

State law’s chilling effect?

Florida’s Parental Rights in Education law prohibits instruction about gender identity or sexual orientation in grades K-3, and in higher grade levels if that instruction is deemed “not age appropriate” or “developmentally appropriate” for students. The law could chill speech that goes beyond what’s banned, including for graduation speeches, said Caroline Mala Corbin, a law professor at the University of Miami.

“If there is a surge of student activism, that’s the silver lining of an otherwise really detrimental law,” Corbin said. “I think it’s fair for schools to think they have a responsibility to make sure that student speech is not going to be racist or sexist or degrading to any group.

“I certainly don’t see how asserting LGBTQ rights qualifies for that concern.”

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The law will take effect July 1, but it already is affecting public schools, teachers and students. Last week, the school district in Lee County let a middle school art teacher go after she discussed sexual orientation with her students. The first-year teacher said she was inspired to come out to her students and teach them about various Pride flags. She asked them to create their own flag if they wanted to, and a parent complained to the school.

Other teachers who identify as LGBTQ+ reportedly bowed out of the profession because of the law. A gay fourth-grade teacher resigned from Key Biscayne K-8 Center earlier this year while the legislation was still being debated, WLRN reported.

She told WLRN that a lot of things factored into her decision to leave, but said ‘don’t say gay’ was the tipping point.

And in Palm Beach County, two books about transgender kids, including Broward resident Jazz Jennings’ “I Am Jazz,” were removed from Palm Beach County classrooms and libraries.

Corbin says she can’t see how sticking up for marginalized students could be considered controversial.

“You can imagine that schools, in an abundance of caution, will censor speech that they don’t have to,” she said. “I think that’s what you’ll see in many schools that are not inherently homophobic or transphobic, but that aren’t sure whether that speech would be outlawed under ‘don’t say gay.’”

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Still planning to speak out

Moricz, the teen in Sarasota County, earlier this year spoke to legislators considering the law in Tallahassee about how it would harm LGBTQ+ students. He organized his school’s “say gay” walkout in March after his school’s administration told him to shut it down, he wrote on an online petition called #LetZanderSpeak.

In a statement online, Moricz said he will be the only student speaker at his school graduation, yet he cannot speak about who he is.

The Sarasota County School District confirmed the principal at Pine View School met with Zander to remind him of the expectations for the ceremony. In a statement, a spokesperson wrote: “Out of respect for all those attending the graduation, students are reminded that a graduation should not be a platform for personal political statements, especially those likely to disrupt the ceremony. Should a student vary from this expectation during the graduation, it may be necessary to take appropriate action.”

An online fundraiser for Moricz’s cause with the Social Equity and Education Initiative had raised $47,600 as of Friday afternoon. Several parents and teachers sent comments with their donation, describing how they have a child who recently came out, or they believe all kids belong.

Moricz tweeted that the group would send more than 10,000 “say gay” stickers to high school seniors in Florida.

“We want you to wear them on your gowns as you cross the graduation stage, reminding underclassmen that we’re done with high school, not the fight,” he wrote.

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