In June of 2013, the small Ft. Worth suburb of Joshua, TX suddenly hit international news. It was irresistible and beautifully fulfilled a variety of favorite media narratives. Noble, intellectual small town lad is brutally suppressed by small-minded school officials, making the lad a First Amendment martyr fighting for the rights of all those brutalized by unthinking bureaucrats. There was a slight twist in the story, however: in this case, the small-minded, small town God and gun clingers, were supposedly actually suppressing the lad’s heartfelt expressions of his Christian faith!
It so happened that I taught at that school–I still do–and was present at the graduation ceremony where the “suppression” took place. I first wrote about it in Joshua, TX: Free Speech and Experience.
By all means, take the links and refresh your memory. The readers comments are voluminous and in many cases, quite passionate. But for those seeking only a brief reiteration of the facts:
Eighteen-year old valedictorian Remington Reimer, also an officer in the JHS Naval ROTC cadet corps, was selected, by tradition, to deliver one of the three student addresses at graduation. School policy requires all student speakers to submit their speech in advance for approval. Once approved, if they deviate from the speech, the microphone is shut off, a fact about which they are forewarned.
Reimer not only choose to deviate from the speech, he announced that fact during the speech, and the microphone was shut off for about 90 seconds. Following his speech, he walked across the stage, graduating with the rest of his class.
Reimer’s father, Todd, who taught at JHS, engaged an attorney/advocacy organization, media outlets around the world took up the cause, and things quickly threatened to spiral out of control. That students do not enjoy an unbridled freedom of speech in school settings, a legal principle long settled and uncontroversial, seemed to be mostly overlooked by the media, though I pointed it out with appropriate Supreme Court citations.
Adding to the controversy was the fact that Reimer had won, with substantial assistance and support by the ROTC staff, the high school principal, and the school district and community, a berth at the U. S. Naval Academy. Reimer’s attorney and media supporters quickly suggested that school authorities were somehow threatening Reimer’s appointment.
The fact that the JHS ROTC routinely qualifies young men and women for our service academies at rates far out of proportion to the size of the school was somehow neglected in the reporting. So was the fact that it was the very principal and school officials who were supposed to be threatening Reimer that certified Reimer’s academic qualifications and character, making that appointment possible.
Exactly what did Reimer say that was cut off? Apparently he wanted to protest the mere fact that he was told he couldn’t say anything he wanted, when and as he chose to day it, a final, grand rebellion against authority. Religion wasn’t the issue at all. In fact, not only Reimer, but the two other student speakers, made reference to their faith–approved by the school–and an invocation and benediction were delivered as well.
In my first article, I wrote:
As a veteran, I know of one lesson he’ll [Reimer] learn quickly indeed. The military is all about tradition and experience. Like countless bright and passionate young men and women before him, he will learn–rapidly and with no room for doubt–that no one cares about his opinions, passionately held or otherwise, and they care even less for his freedom of speech to express them. That comes much later, with experience–and wisdom.
The second article, Joshua, TX: Free Speech and Experience II, continued the story as it developed. And in the final article, Joshua, TX: Free Speech and Experience II, The Final, Final Chapter, I wrote:
As I also previously wrote, Cochran, Lt. Col. Davidson (the Joshua ROTC commander), and a variety of other teachers and community members had already endorsed Riemer’s character and scholarship. Had they not done so, Reimer would have never received an appointment to the Naval Academy. I take them at their word. One might imagine many in Joshua feeling betrayed by Reimer, however, I have no doubt that is tempered by the knowledge that he is only 18, and thinking back on the mistakes they made at that age, well, they know teenagers and expect them to be teenagers from time to time.
Now, two years on, an update:
Only a few days after graduation, accompanied by Lt. Col. Davidson, Remington, at his volition, met with JHS principal Mick Cochran and sincerely apologized for violating the trust he accepted in making a graduation speech, and for the ensuing controversy. Cochran graciously accepted, they shook hands, and there it might have ended. Unfortunately, Reimer’s attorney and the media had no intention of letting a private apology and a handshake resolve matters.
No attempt was ever made by anyone associated with the school district to contact the Academy regarding Reimer. In fact, it was the Academy staff, several months later, that called Lt. Col. Davidson on Reimer’s behalf. Reimer, for the first time in his life, was struggling, and the Academy staff thought some encouraging words from Davidson might help. Davidson dutifully, and gladly obliged. This was the only contact between JHS personnel and the Naval Academy regarding Reimer. The graduation incident was never discussed.
JHS Superintendent Fran Marek eventually issued a carefully worded non-apology apology, no money changed hands–Reimer had no civil cause of action, ever–and the matter faded out of the public imagination. Joshua High School returned to its continuing mission of providing an excellent educational opportunity and the ROTC continues to produce outstanding young men and women, continues to send them to service academies, and routinely produces state and nationally ranked competition teams.
Graduation programs now contain a new disclaimer relating to student speech.
Todd Reimer left JHS shortly after the controversy and apparently teaches elsewhere.
For Remington Reimer, however, the difficulty he had on his final day as a JHS student became prophetic. Like many granted an opportunity to attend a service academy, Remington, sadly, was not able to meet the necessary standards and left the academy early into his first year. At least one unconfirmed rumor has Remington currently attending seminary. If so, I wish him success in that–or any–endeavor.
It’s a familiar story, and a worthy lesson. It’s one thing to be a big fish in a small pond, but thrown into a metaphorical ocean surrounded by some of the smartest, most motivated and capable young men and women in the nation, takes not only self-confidence, but humility and the ability to quickly adapt to unfamiliar circumstances. Not everyone can do it. Success in one setting does not automatically guarantee success in another.
Our choices have consequences, and those that profess to be our friends, such as Reimer’s lawyers from the Liberty Institute, sometimes have goals other than our best interests in mind.