NCAC has been monitoring three school districts’ responses to students who have declined to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance or national anthem as a form of protest.
Several weeks ago, NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick decided to protest the recent police shootings of African-Americans by kneeling during the national anthem. His silent protest inspired robust national debate. Many commentators criticized him for allegedly disrespecting his country or inappropriately politicizing a ceremony designed to unify Americans. Others praised Mr. Kaepernick for launching what is quickly becoming a political movement: several other athletes have since followed Kaepernick in kneeling during the national anthem, attempting to use their public image to bring about political change.
Since Mr. Kaepernick’s protest, however, hish school students who have also declined to participate in similar rituals have been punished by teachers who disagree with their decision to protest. Fortunately, in two of the three recent cases monitored by NCAC, the school districts have acknowledged their teachers’ errors and reaffirmed their commitment to protecting their students’ First Amendment rights.
For example, in Lake County, California, a Native American high schooler claimed her teacher dropped her participation grade after she chose to remain seated during the Pledge of Allegiance. The student, who has carried out the protest since second grade– a response to the US government's dark history with Native Americans– says her current teacher told her that her decision was “disrespectful” and that she was “making bad choices.” NCAC reached out to Superintendent Donna Becnel who said that all employees of the District were sent an email reminding them of the District’s “very strong” policy protecting student speech. The student also accepted the District's offer to transfer to another class.
Meanwhile in Chicago, a teacher at Eisenhower High School allegedly attempted to drag an African-American sophomore out of his seat after he remaining seated during the Pledge in protest of police brutality. Principal Eric Briseno defended the student, however, informing local media that his school “respect[s] students’ First Amendment right not to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.”
Finally, a Orange County (Florida) School District has recently interpreted state law in a way that would require students to obtain parental permission before kneeling during the national anthem. The legal issues at hand are complicated. While Florida law requires parental permission for students to remain seated during the Pledge, the law does not mention the national anthem. The District’s dubious legal interpretation threatens to deprive students who disagree with their parents of their First Amendment rights. As Justice Antonin Scalia noted in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association (2010), the state does not have the power “to prevent children from hearing or saying anything without their parents’ prior consent.”
For what it's worth, the school districts in California and Chicago should be commended for responding in a way that protects their students’ long-recognized right to remain seated during the Pledge (mandatory flag salutes were ruled unconstitutional in the landmark 1943 case West Virginia v. Barnette). NCAC continues to monitor the Orange County School District.
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