Some time ago it was reported that an eleven-year-old was arrested after having refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance at the direction of a substitute teacher. While the student was not directly arrested for refusing to stand for the Pledge, the ensuing argument with the teacher and his alleged refusal to comply with administrators and subsequently law enforcement, led to his arrest.
I have written previously on the Pledge of Allegiance and gave my thoughts on whether it should be recited at all.
This is not the issue here, however. The only thing at issue is that a student chose a course of action that was peacefully non-compliant, a course of action that is protected under numerous laws, and was met with a harsh response from the state. If we genuinely believe education to be crucial at such an age, part of that education must allow for children to express their thoughts and beliefs. This allows their ideologies and understanding of issues to expand and change with time.
The Pledge Meets the First Amendment
In 1943, only one year after the Pledge of Allegiance was formally adopted by Congress and implemented in schools across the country, the requirement of daily recitation was challenged in court. In West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, the Supreme Court ruled in a 7-2 decision that compelled speech, even if the motive was “national unity,” was unconstitutional. Justice Robert H. Jackson stated:
“If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”
Despite this ruling, many school districts and states have continued to discipline students for refusing to stand for or recite the pledge, especially if it is on political grounds. Florida is not one of these states; both the state of Florida and the Polk County School District allow students to abstain from reciting the Pledge. Not only was this substitute teacher in violation of the Constitution, but she was also in violation of state law and local policy.
Debate is Healthy; Suppression is Harmful
Since 2015, America has seen many youth activists under the national spotlight. Some of it has been positive in creating discourse, while some has been destructive to the free expression of ideas and even property.
Youth activism is nothing new. In 1965, five students chose to wear black armbands as a way of protesting the war in Vietnam. The students were disciplined for disrupting class, which was ultimately challenged. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the students, stating that the First Amendment did not cease to exist at the entrance of the school.
While most libertarians may not agree with the Parkland students who chose to march on Washington (and I may take some flak as well), the reality is that a number of teenagers came together to demand change and advance a challenging conversation. Despite the mudslinging, accusations of crises actors and heavy-handed guidance by biased adults, and the sheer inability to discuss what these students were speaking of, without any slant or bitterness, the efforts of these students were admirable, if not noble.
The aforementioned case of 1965, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, gave rise to the Tinker Test, which the Supreme Court applies to determine if the free expression of a student was disruptive to the normal course of the classroom, a gray area in schools. Applied to the case of a student quietly abstaining from reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, one can reasonably assume that no disruption was had, until the teacher, who reportedly argued with the student, made a scene.
The teacher called out the student, reportedly saying, “Well, you can always go back because I came here from Cuba and the day I feel I’m not welcome here anymore, I would find another place to live.” A disruption was not had until the teacher violated the law by attempting to compel the student to say the Pledge. The student stood his ground and argued his case, which caused the teacher to call for the administration to remove him from the classroom. After standing his ground further, the police were brought in, and the student was eventually arrested. If such attempts at suppression, rather than debate, are going to be made, peaceful discourse cannot be had and the level of civil debate in the country will continue to degrade.
To Embrace Debate is to Embrace Protest
Set aside the issues for a moment and focus only on the action itself.
Peaceful dissidence, regardless of what it pertains to, should be admired when it comes from such young members of our communities. Whether we like it or not, the next generation will eventually be running the show around the world (hopefully with significantly reduced power). Political dissent and debate should not only be an accepted part of a child’s education, but it should be encouraged. Students who are kept from debate and dissent will eventually be students who demand safe spaces and attempt to silence critics. This was a teachable moment in Florida, one primed for either vigorous discussion or private conversation. It was catastrophically missed. Adopt a student, give a child a Constitution.