High school graduation speakers cry censorship over talks urging climate change action

During the spring of 2019, high school graduation speakers across the country claimed that administrators had suppressed their efforts to discuss climate change at commencement ceremonies. The students, members of the nationwide advocacy movement Class of 0000, planned to express through prepared speeches the urgency of the climate change crisis and to advocate swift political action to achieve zero carbon emissions. 

Key Players

Class of 0000 is a youth-led movement of high school and college students. It formed seven months after the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a report in October 2018 warning that humanity has less than a dozen years to switch to 100% renewable energy or face the worst impacts of global warming. In spring 2019, 350 Class of 0000 members planned to read a prepared speech at their respective graduation ceremonies calling for political action. 

“Today, we celebrate our achievements from the last 4 years. But I want to focus on what we need to achieve in the next 11,” the prepared speech reads. “That’s how long climate scientists have given us; 11 years to avoid catastrophic climate change. … Our diplomas may say Class of 2019, but marked in history, we are the Class of Zero. Zero emissions. Zero excuses. Zero time to waste.”

Emily Shal, 18 years old at the time, was senior class president of a public technical high school in Haverhill, Massachusetts, about 35 miles north of Boston. She says her school censored her planned graduation speech on climate change, a charge the school rebuffs.

Jessica Lopez, also 18 years old at the time, is from San Diego, California, and was prevented from discussing climate change in her graduation speech at Health Sciences High School, a public charter school.

Further Details

Shal claims her high school, Whittier Tech, found her planned climate change message too contentious for a graduation speech. She had previously read the speech at a school talent show and faced backlash from authorities, The Guardian reports.

“The administration were very mad, they were pissed,” Shal told The Guardian. “Everyone was telling me I was in trouble. They now consider me rogue and rebellious.” Intimidated by the initial reaction and concerned over potential repercussions, Shal, according to The Guardian, opted not to include the message, on the basis of a request from school authorities.

District Superintendent Maureen Lynch rejected this description of the events in a June 12 statement, saying the school would have supported Shal’s freedom of expression. “We are saddened that our former student felt that she would not have Whittier’s support in speaking about a subject she is clearly passionate about. She does and she would have.”

Lynch also sought to discredit The Guardian’s description of the events. “The Guardian’s reporting that a Whittier Tech graduate was dissuaded from talking about climate change during her class president graduation speech is false,” Lynch said. “The conversations reported by The Guardian between the student and the school did not occur.”

Shal, on the other hand, endorsed The Guardian’s description, retweeting the article and urging her followers to “read [the] article and spread the news!”

Lopez, in San Diego, was told by her high school principal that climate change was too political to be mentioned in her graduation speech. The move came as a surprise for Lopez, as her school had previously been supportive of student expression, including a walkout to protest gun violence. In place of her censored speech, Lopez encouraged classmates to don “No Planet B” badges for the graduation ceremony, The Guardian reports.

“It’s shocking to me that we could voice our opinions [about gun violence], but are silenced when we want to talk about climate change,” Lopez told The Guardian. “I was very upset and felt like I didn’t want to go up there and be a hypocrite. It’s created a lot of tension between the class and the administration.”


Several students’ climate change warnings in commencement speeches silenced, but others heard

All in all, at least five graduation speakers across the country — including Shal and Lopez — had their efforts to discuss climate change suppressed by their high schools, The Guardian reported. But some did manage to get their voices heard.

Sarah Hewitt, a senior at Sweet Home high school in Oregon, for example, said her plans to discuss climate change in her graduation speech were initially met with resistance. But her principal gave in when she cited her First Amendment rights, NowThis reported. 

“Most of my peers don’t believe that climate instability is a real thing or that it won’t affect them. But that’s why I think it’s most important to lay out the facts. … Everyone needs to know the truth about the causes of climate change and be aware that we have the solutions,” Hewitt said in an interview with NowThis. “I see hope for our future. And I think what sets my generation apart is that we have the facts, the knowledge, the technical resources, and hopefully, the political will to combat this climate crisis that is caused by the past generations.”