It has happened again. Another public school student has been punished for refusing to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Once again a public school official apparently needs a history lesson on the First Amendment and freedom.
Nearly 70 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette (1943) that public school officials could not force students to salute the flag and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Writing for the Court, Justice Robert Jackson opined that “if there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, shall prescribe what shall be orthodox in matters of politics, nationalism, religion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”
This lofty language means that the government cannot compel public school students to agree with the messages of the Pledge of Allegiance; they can’t force patriotism down the throats of students who wish to abstain from the recitation.
That’s what makes the news out of Maryland’s Montgomery County disturbing. According to news reports, in late January a middle school teacher at Roberto Clemente Middle School in Germantown had a school security officer escort a 13-year-old girl from his classroom for refusing to stand and recite the Pledge.
The ACLU of Maryland wrote a Feb. 5 letter to school officials, stating: “The law is crystal clear that a public school cannot embarrass or harass a student for maintaining a respectful silence during the Pledge.” As my colleague Gene Policinski, executive director of the First Amendment Center, wrote about a Pledge flap in Arkansas, students have “the right to stand up for their rights by sitting down.”
A Feb. 24 Washington Post article reported that school officials had agreed to apologize to the student. A spokesperson for the school stated that the teacher acted contrary to school policy: “Our teachers are expected to know the students' rights and responsibilities. … A mistake has been made, and it will be rectified."
This kind of controversy pops up from time to time — a confusion over student rights that collides with a school official's personal sense of patriotism, order or authority.
What should come to mind is a sense that — as noted by the Supreme Court in its landmark 1969 decision Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School Dist. — students do not leave their rights at the schoolhouse gate.
And that's a principle we all can stand up for.