When a seven-year-old student from Terre Haute, Indiana opted to sit silently during his school’s daily Pledge of Allegiance, the First Amendment stood up for his decision. But his teacher didn’t. She reportedly grabbed him by the hand and escorted him down to the principal’s office for being troublesome. Later that afternoon, the teacher took him aside and forced him to “practice” reciting the Pledge. Upset by the treatment, the first-grader was in tears when his mother picked him up from school.
His mother filed a lawsuit on behalf of her son earlier this week, alleging teacher Kelly McFarland and principal Mary Beth Harris from Blanche E. Fuqua Elementary School violated the Constitution.
As we noted in our timeline and resource on student national anthem protests– created in response to a trend in these types of incidents last fall around the time of Colin Kaepernick's own anthem protest– well-established case law upholds a student’s choice to refrain from participating in the Pledge of Allegiance. Dating back to 1943, the Supreme Court ruled in West Virginia v. Barnette that compelling public school students like those at Fuqua to salute the flag violated the First Amendment’s protection of free speech, which includes the right not to speak. Moreover, an Indiana statute, consistent with federal law, declares that reciting the Pledge of Allegiance is voluntary and a student can choose not to partake.
Other forms of student political speech are protected too. As the Court noted in the 1969 case Tinker v. Des Moines, educators can only suppress speech that “materially and substantially interfere” with school operations. The Constitution permits political speech so long as it is not disruptive to the school day. And according to the complaint, the Fuqua student “sat quietly” to peacefully protested the United States government because he thinks it is “racist, greedy, and does not care about people.” Since he did not cause a disturbance to the learning environment, his punishment is unwarranted.
Voicing dissent—or showing dissent through silence, as it were—is integral to political freedom of expression. Forcing today’s students to unquestioningly proclaim their fealty without encouraging intellectual inquiry breeds a docile population who won’t speak out when necessary in the future. As we pointed out in our letter to a Florida school district that forbade student-athletes from kneeling during the national anthem, “one of our educational system’s fundamental objectives is to prepare young adults to exercise the rights and shoulder the responsibilities of citizenship.” Learning to be a critical participant in our democracy starts early in school—and this is only possible without compulsory performance of patriotic routines.