What the ... ?
BY MIKE JONES Associate Editor
Sunday, August 26, 2012
8/26/12 at 3:10 AM
The small town of Prague hasn't had this much attention since last May's Kolache Festival.
A senior in this past spring's graduating class at Prague High School was denied her diploma because she altered a school-approved valedictorian speech and uttered the word "hell."
In the speech, Kaitlin Nootbaar was describing her reaction when people continued to ask her what she planned to do with her life after high school. In her written speech she was to say, "How the heck do I know" but at the last minute changed "heck" to "hell."
OK, it's not all that bad of a word, especially these days. Anyone watched any network TV lately? And the line is funny. Still, it likely offended some - as well as delighted others - in the audience.
Such a "scandal" is just the kind of news story that folks back east love from what they must consider quaint (backward) states such as Oklahoma. ("Tee-hee, you can't say 'hell' in Oklahoma.") And, in the age of the Internet, no small blunder goes undiscovered.
By Tuesday morning the "Today" show had its three-person panel of "Power Players" weigh in. The three-person panel consists of Dr. Nancy Snyderman, attorney Star Jones and advertising executive Donny Deutsch.
Surely these three heavyweights had studied the details of the story before they were to comment, but it certainly didn't seem that way. They had about 30 seconds to discuss the issue and eventually all came to the conclusion that the principal ought to be fired on grounds that he violated Kaitlin's freedom of speech.
Wow. It only took 30 seconds to come to that life-altering conclusion.
In defense of the "Today" show, Kaitlin and her father were whisked to New York City for an in-studio interview with Matt Lauer. The story was discussed further and more details were aired.
This is a difficult issue. I am a strong proponent of the First Amendment; after all it includes freedom of speech and freedom of the press (as well as freedom of religion, the right to assembly and the right to petition the government).
This, however, is not the case that I want the right of speech to hinge upon.
Yes, we all have the right to free speech. But all rights have some restrictions. I can stand on the corner of Fourth and Main streets and spout any sort of nonsense I want, as long as I'm not causing a problem. I can stand on that same corner and hand out leaflets espousing my political, religious or any other point of view without fear of punishment, other than people simply laughing at me.
On the other hand, I work and write for a newspaper. I am allowed a certain amount of freedom, for which I am most grateful, in what I write. Despite opinions to the contrary, I am not stupid. I know my parameters. In the end, the freedom of the press and my speech are limited by the person who owns the press. I have no quarrel with that. My freedoms are not restricted by those rules.
Again, if I don't like the rules, I am free to take my opinions elsewhere, such as the corner of Fourth and Main.
Kaitlin Nootbaar's fuss with the Prague school system is not unlike the newspaper business. She wrote her valedictorian speech and it was approved by the principal. Then, she changed it without permission.
Columnists and reporters write and hand their product over to an editor. Hypothetically, let's say a reporter writes a news story, turns it over to his or her editor and that editor makes some much-needed changes. Then, after the editor has approved the corrected copy for publication, let's say the reporter goes back into the story and changes it back to its original copy.
You know what would happen? That reporter would be looking for space at Fourth and Main to expound upon his or her next scoop.
No big deal
Kaitlin altered her copy after it was approved. It's not as serious a mistake as the hypothetical reporter's error, but there is a parallel. Whether college journalism students like it or not, the school is, in effect, their publisher. If they don't care for the editing, they can get a press and start an underground paper.
Still, all this brouhaha over Kaitlin's fight with the Prague school system is way overblown. Personally, I don't think her saying "hell" instead of "heck" is a big deal. I can see how the principal felt betrayed and angry over the change. It blindsided him and I'm sure he had some uneasy questions to answer from the offended folks who attended the commencement or who just heard about it.
The principal asked for an apology in return for Kaitlin's diploma. She says she won't apologize. OK. Let's move on.
The principal still has his job. Kaitlin is enrolled on scholarship at college. She has her transcript and that's all that matters.
As far as that coveted high school diploma: Quick, how many of you can lay your hands on your high school diploma within 10 minutes? Yeah, I know, it's in a box around there somewhere.
Mike Jones, 918-581-8332
David Nootbaar and his daughter, Kaitlin, are interviewed Tuesday by Matt Lauer (right) on the "Today" show. PETER KRAMER/NBC