California high school valedictorian’s microphone disabled when speech veers off script

Petaluma High School (PHS) valedictorian Lulabel Seitz had her microphone cut in the middle of delivering her commencement address. She was beginning to discuss her school’s handling of sexual assault when the interruption occurred, and she was unable to finish her speech.

Key Players

Lulabel Seitz graduated from PHS, located about 40 miles north of San Francisco, California, in June 2018. As valedictorian of her class, the 17-year-old was invited to give a speech during her graduation ceremony. According to the portion of her speech she was able to deliver, Seitz, the granddaughter of immigrants from the Philippines, is the first member of her family to graduate from high school. She will study applied mathematics and economics at Stanford University beginning in the fall of 2018, reports The Press Democrat. Seitz had the script of her original speech approved by school administrators, and it contained no mention of the school’s history with addressing sexual assault.

David Stirrat is the principal of PHS. He decided that Seitz’s microphone should be turned off during her commencement address.

Further Details

Seitz was about four minutes into her commencement speech at the June 2, 2018 graduation ceremony when she began to veer off script. Her original script had been approved by school administrators, but when Seitz began discussing sexual assault — a topic not included in her text — administrators cut her microphone. She stepped to the side of the podium, reported The Press Democrat, and demanded that the microphone be turned back on, while members of the audience and her fellow students began to encourage her, chanting “Let her speak!” Despite these efforts, she was not permitted to continue.

Before her microphone was turned off, Seitz talked about struggles the school had faced during the previous school year, including dealing with the widespread wildfires that plagued Northern California in October 2017. According to the full version of her speech, which she later posted on YouTube, she then moved into a discussion of some of her personal struggles. Seitz was allegedly assaulted on the PHS campus during high school, and she felt frustrated with what she perceived as a lackluster response from the PHS administration. She was preparing to allude to this grievance in her speech on graduation day, when her microphone was cut, although she had yet to say anything specific about sexual assault.

According to The Washington Post, the last words Seitz was able to deliver were: “The class of 2018 has demonstrated time and time again that we may be a new generation, but we are not too young to speak up, to dream and to create change. Which is why even when some people on this campus, those same people —”

Stirrat later explained that before the ceremony he and other school administrators had been alerted to the fact that Seitz might go off script and bring up topics not covered in the text she originally submitted for approval.

According to The Press Democrat, Stirrat said he cut off Seitz’s speech because he was “trying to make sure our graduation ceremony was appropriate and beautiful.”

David Rose, assistant superintendent of student services for the Petaluma Unified School District, told The Press Democrat that turning off Seitz’s microphone was well within the school’s legal authority. “If the school is providing the forum, then the school has the ability to have some control over the message,” he said.


Valedictorian prevented from finishing speech, posts it on YouTube

In a phone interview with The Press Democrat, Seitz said, “I thought this is a public school with freedom of speech. … Even if the administration doesn’t give me a mic, I still want to speak.”

She posted the address in its entirety to YouTube. The video includes footage of the interrupted speech from graduation day, as well as a recording of her later reciting the speech in full. In the caption to the video, Seitz wrote, “The Petaluma High School administration infringed on my freedom of speech. … For weeks, they have threatened me against ‘speaking against them’ in my speech.”

In response to Seitz’s accusation of censorship, which she repeated in interviews, school officials said that graduation speakers had been warned that if they went off-message, they risked having their microphones cut.

Assistant Principal Deborah Richardson said she told Seitz during a meeting before graduation that “the expectation is that the speech you submitted is the speech you will give.”

As of June 2019, Seitz’s video had been viewed more than 416,200 times.