“The action of the local authorities in compelling the flag salute and pledge transcends constitutional limitations on their power, and invades the sphere of intellect and spirit which it is the purpose of the First Amendment to our Constitution to reserve from all official control.”
It has been over 70 years since the U.S. Supreme Court put those words to paper in holding that the First Amendment protects public school students from being coerced into participating in the Pledge of Allegiance. Here in Rhode Island, the ACLU obtained a court order as far back as 1975 against a school district that required students to stand during the Pledge.
Yet only a month ago at a Providence middle school, the ACLU learned that a teacher refused to allow students to sit quietly during the daily recitation of the Pledge unless they could, to his satisfaction, “articulate their reasons for not standing.”
The ACLU immediately contacted Providence school superintendent Chris Maher, noting that there was no excuse in 2016 for any teacher to believe he could prevent or discourage students from sitting quietly during recitation of the Pledge. The Superintendent agreed and, at the ACLU’s request, the school district’s attorney sent out a memo this month to all principals in the district, reminding them in no uncertain terms that “no one may be forced to participate in the performance of the Pledge. Additionally, no member of a school community has an obligation to justify his or her refusal to participate, nor does any school or District official have the right to decide what constitutes sufficient justification for an individual's choice not to participate.”
A student’s right to silently dissent from a coerced patriotic exercise lies at the heart of the First Amendment, and the failure to respect that right undermines a basic principle that schools should be instilling in our youth. After all, the public school is where most children get their first sustained view of government authority, making blatant violations of civil liberties in that setting all the more troubling.
We commend the school district’s prompt response to this issue, but the fact that a reminder memo to school principals was even necessary demonstrates yet again that eternal vigilance truly is the price of liberty. Dissent is patriotic, but at a time of a Presidential administration that seems to equate dissent with treason, it is all the more important that we be ready at a moment’s notice to prevent any backsliding on our fundamental right to disagree with the government.