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Lake Highlands valedictorian’s speech against Texas ‘heartbeat bill’ goes viral

Paxton Smith said it felt wrong to talk about something other than the state’s controversial abortion legislation.
Paxton Smith, Lake Highlands High School valedictorian, poses for a photo on Wednesday, June 2, 2021, in Dallas. (Juan Figueroa/The Dallas Morning News)(Juan Figueroa / Staff Photographer)

By Talia Richman

Paxton Smith pulled the folded-up piece of paper from underneath her red graduation robe.

It wasn’t the valedictorian speech she originally prepared, the one that was approved by administrators at Lake Highlands High School. Instead, she decided to use her three minutes on stage to decry the so-called heartbeat bill, legislation signed recently by Gov. Greg Abbott that will essentially ban most abortions in Texas.

It felt wrong, she said, to talk about anything else.

“I have dreams and hopes and ambitions. Every girl graduating today does,” she told her fellow graduates and their families Sunday. “We have spent our entire lives working towards our future and — without our input and without our consent — our control over that future has been stripped away from us.”

The legislation she spoke out against would ban abortion as early as six weeks into a pregnancy — before many women know they’re pregnant — and allow any private citizen to sue abortion providers who violate the restriction. It goes into effect Sept. 1.

It includes an exception if the life of the woman is in danger but does not have any exceptions for rape or incest.

That’s “gut-wrenching” and “dehumanizing,” said Smith, 18, who plans to attend the University of Texas at Austin.

“I am terrified that if my contraceptives fail, I am terrified that if I am raped, then my hopes and aspirations and dreams and efforts for my future will no longer matter,” she said, as many in the audience cheered.

As she sat in the band hall earlier this school year, she couldn’t get her mind off the legislation barreling ahead in Austin.

So she started writing this alternative speech instead. Smith originally planned to talk about television and the media — and that’s the topic district administrators signed off on.

Richardson ISD officials will review student speech protocols ahead of next year’s graduation programs, district spokesman Tim Clark said.

Every RISD graduation program reads: “The students who shall be speaking at the graduation ceremony were selected based on neutral criteria to deliver messages of the students’ own choices. The content of each student speaker’s message is the private, voluntary expression of the individual student and does not reflect the endorsement, sponsorship, position or expression of the District or its employees.”

Her speech has attracted massive attention. After magazine wrote about it, Hillary Clinton tweeted: “This took guts. Thank you for not staying silent, Paxton.”

Smith said her phone has been blowing up with an “overwhelmingly positive” response. Parents have reached out to thank her.

Paxton Smith, the Lake Highlands High School valedictorian, used her three minutes on stage to decry the so-called “heartbeat bill.”(Photo courtesy of Paxton Smith / Photo courtesy of Paxton Smith)

As she approached the podium Sunday, Smith worried the microphone would be cut off once she got started. She knows many in her community are politically conservative.

She wondered at first whether the ceremony was the right time or place for her speech. But at a rally, she figured, everyone already agreed with her. During graduation, she had a captive audience of people with all different perspectives.

Plus, as she said during her speech, it was a day that “you are most inclined to listen to a voice like mine — a woman’s voice — to tell you that this is a problem.

“And it is a problem that cannot wait.”

To watch:

The DMN Education Lab deepens the coverage and conversation about urgent education issues critical to the future of North Texas.

The DMN Education Lab is a community-funded journalism initiative, with support from The Beck Group, Bobby and Lottye Lyle, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Dallas Regional Chamber, Deedie Rose, The Meadows Foundation, Solutions Journalism Network, Southern Methodist University and Todd A. Williams Family Foundation. The Dallas Morning News retains full editorial control of the Education Lab’s journalism.

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