PRAGUE school officials refused to issue Kaitlin Nootbaar a copy of her diploma after she used the word “hell” in a speech at graduation. Her father portrays her as a free-speech martyr, but that's just spin. In reality the young woman is learning a fact of adult life: You don't get to say whatever you want, whenever you want, to whoever you want without consequences.
Most people place “hell” on the lower rungs of profanity, if they even consider it a curse word at all, and we're under no illusion that Oklahoma teenagers don't routinely use far stronger language.
But the school officials at Prague have the right to set standards. At a community event including everyone from infants to the elderly, it's not unreasonable to require speakers to address an audience without using language that may offend some citizens.
Nootbaar had to get approval for her speech in advance, but she didn't follow the text during delivery. If you agree to pre-approval, there's an easy way to avoid problems: Deliver the speech as written. If you find that too limiting, you can decline to speak. We doubt any of Nootbaar's classmates would have been disappointed by the prospect of not having to sit through another speech.
Whether they realize it or not, the Nootbaar family's media campaign hasn't helped their daughter's reputation. A few weeks ago, she was known as “the smartest girl in the class.” Now she's “the girl who cussed at graduation.” That's a downgrade.
We realize Nootbaar is a teenager, and when you're a kid the urge to shock adults can be a temptation. No doubt, inserting “hell” into the speech is tame, but the motive was clearly to gig some adults. It reflects poorly on the speaker. In high school, such behavior results in minor punishment. In the real world, the potential consequences are more significant and include lost opportunities and income.
A 2010 study by HCD Research found that 58 percent of women and 52 percent of men had a more negative perception of a person who used profanity. Only 4 percent of men and 3 percent of women said the use of profanity resulted in a more favorable impression. Those stats show the risks of defining yourself through the use of questionable language at inappropriate times. A job applicant may not think “hell” qualifies as profanity, but then the job seeker isn't the one making the hiring decision.
That's true even of “edgy” professions. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that stand-up comedians can lose jobs and significant income through language choice: “Big-city clubs have a dirty secret: Even the pros earn only a few hundred dollars a set, if that. Stand-up's steady money is at colleges, festivals, churches and — for $10,000 a pop — in the spotless dinners, trade shows and pep talks put on by corporations.” Those events don't hire comedians whose acts aren't “clean.” This doesn't mean anyone's free-speech rights have been infringed. It means that organizations set standards for their own events.
If corporate leaders believe audiences should not be needlessly offended at their events, why would we impose a lower standard for public events at local high schools?