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Rick Santorum High School Speech Requires Parental Approval

A local chapter of the Young Americans for Freedom had to match a price tag of $18,000 in order to bring Rick Santorum to their high school campus in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. Now, after a week of back and forth among school officials, all that's required of students who wish to attend his speech is a signed permission slip.

The former U.S. senator and controversial 2012 presidential hopeful was slated to speak about leadership in front of an assembly of students at Grosse Pointe South High School on April 24.

However, on Monday, parents received a mass email from school principal Dr. Matt Outlaw saying that the speech was called off. Speculation ensued from Santorum himself, proposing that the speech was cancelled due to his stance on gay marriage at a time when equal rights is fervent in the public lexicon.  

After some community outrage and compromise with the YAF, school officials reversed their decision, opening the doors for Santorum to speak. Students can only enter, however, if they have a signed permission slip.

Rebecca Fannon, the district spokeswoman, attributed the initial cancellation to the fact that Santorum refused to allow Superintendent Thomas Harwood to preview his speech and that he had no prior experience speaking in front of high school students.

The permission slip, however, is a Band-Aid covering what is the central issue at stake here: the intersection of the public and the private with regards to freedom of speech. Since South is a public school, there are greater issues of neutrality that must be taken into account, but they are issues that should have been explored prior to the approval of the speaker.

According to YAF’s website, the foundation’s Vice President Patrick Coyle and senior Langston Bowens, who spearheaded the action, originally spoke to Outlaw over the phone concerning the prospect of bringing Santorum to campus. According to Coyle, Outlaw signed off on the event right then and there.

Last year, a similar issue concerning freedom of speech in a public space arose in a place not too far from South, at Grosse Pointe North High School, when Grant Strobl, head of the YAF chapter at North, printed several posters in honor of Women’s History month that called for respect of women, particularly those with conservative stripes. Controversy ensued when Strobl pointed out that the words “Black Power” hung freely next to images of Martin Luther King at the school.

Whether or not Rick Santorum, as a paid speaker and former elected official, planned to bring up his position on gay marriage is a question that casts a haze over the debate for freedom of speech. The right to express one’s opinions is something that is fragile in a public school environment. Those in higher positions should willingly put both sides of the issue on the table for the sake of neutrality and the greater good of society. For now, a permission slip will suffice.

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