COLCHESTER – The West Prairie school board  Thursday heard public comment on the matter of Sam Blackledge, a valedictorian who was allegedly not permitted to deliver a speech containing religious content during his graduation ceremony.
Tom Clark, a district parent and member of the First Baptist Church in Colchester, opened public comment by asking the school board who their legal representation is and what the funding source is for that attorney.
“The matter that I am going to speak to tonight is the matter of Sam Blackledge not being able or allowed to deliver his speech that he prepared for graduation 2018 at the high school,” he said. “In speaking to that, I hope you’re all aware of the laws pertaining to that type of situation.”
He then read a small section of laws provided by the United States Department of Education guidelines that specifically address this situation to the board. “'School officials may not mandate or organize prayer at graduation or select speakers for such events in a manner that favors religious speech as prayer. Where students or other private speakers are selected on the basis of genuinely neutral even-handed criteria, and retain primary control over the content of their expression.'”
“'However,'” Clark continued, “the expression is not attributable to the school, and therefore, may not be restricted because of its religious or anti-religious content. To avoid any mistake in perception that a school endorses student or other private speech that is not in fact attributable to the school, school officials may make appropriate neutral disclaimers to clarify that such speech, whether religious or non-religious, is the speaker’s and not that of the school.'”
Clark then read an excerpt of legal guidance on Constitutionally Protected Prayer in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools, which is available online at
Clark concluded his remarks by saying that what he read before the school board is what he has studied and that he hopes it is what the legal counsel for the school board has advised them.
Clark urged the board to “resolve this matter quickly” and to concede to the remedy Clark believes was requested by Sam Blackledge which was an “apology and training” and to not “allow the attorneys to dictate how long this (matter) goes on, because I can tell you I have personal experience in labor relations that attorneys will tell you a lot of things in the first part because they only get paid when they litigate.”
The West Prairie school board took no direct action to Clark’s statement, and offered no comment on it during the school board meeting.
A deputy general counsel with First Liberty Institute civil rights organization sent a letter to West Prairie School District Superintendent Carol Kilver requesting a response to claims the district violated a student’s free speech right at graduation, according to a May 25 issue of the Voice.
The letter, dated May 23, asks the school district for a written statement “acknowledging its improper actions toward Sam along with its pledge that such censorship will not occur in the future.” It also asks the district to “adopt a written policy protecting student religious speech within its schools consistent with the Department of Education guidance“  no later than today, Sunday.
This was met with a statement by the school district that it believed it had acted within the law and would have no further public comment due to potential litigation.

— Michelle Langhout contributed to this report.
Reach Christopher Ginn by email at or find him on Facebook.