Picture this. Students in schools paid for with tax dollars are ordered to stand as a sign of respect for the federal government. If they sit or kneel, they face punishment. Sometimes, teachers respond to a student who refuses to stand by haranguing her until the student reacts angrily, at which point she is arrested. This might sound like something out of China, North Korea or Russia, but it describes some American public schools and universities. For some students in America’s public education system, standing for the Pledge of Allegiance or National Anthem is not an option. As the Hill explains, “two states, Florida and Texas, have seen their pledge statutes tested in court, since they require permission from a parent or guardian for a student to decline to take part in the pledge.” Interestingly, they do not require permission to stand for the pledge.
In 2017–18, Texas was embroiled in a lawsuit, after Houston public school student India Landry remained seated during the pledge and was briefly expelled. The Texas state government jumped in to defend the law. According to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, “requiring the pledge to be recited at the start of every school day has the laudable result of fostering respect for our flag and a patriotic love of our country.” Free speech is apparently not a priority for the Texas Attorney General. The support of the state government for this kind of censorship shows that this is a systemic problem, not simply a matter of a few bad individual teachers or principals. Things in Florida look little better. About a decade ago, the US Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Florida’s law on the grounds that “We conclude that the state’s interest in recognizing and protecting the rights of parents on some educational issues is sufficient to justify the restriction of some students’ freedom of speech.” Florida’s interest in “protecting the rights of parents” only applies to speech the state government dislikes, since there is no similar requirement to get parental permission before standing for the pledge. It is not the proper role of government to assist (or stand in for) parents in arbitrarily censoring children’s free expression.
Earlier this year, a black sixth grader in a Lakeland, Florida public school refused to stand during the Pledge of Allegiance due to his frustration with the treatment of non-white Americans. According to her own affidavit, the child’s teacher berated him, suggesting he “go back” to where he came from if he disliked the way things were in America. When he refused to knuckle under in response to this racist, authoritarian behavior, she reported him, and the administrative dean and a police officer entered the classroom to confront the student. Understandably angry at the violation of his free speech rights, the student yelled at the officials, refused to leave the room, and was arrested and charged. The local police claimed that, “This arrest was based on the student’s choice to disrupt the classroom, make threats and resist the officer’s efforts to leave the classroom.” This misses the point. If the teacher had not felt entitled to bully her student for not following her vision of patriotism or if school officials had told her she was out of line, the class would not have been disrupted, and things would never have escalated. Both the teacher and the cop ought to find jobs that do not involve working for the government or having authority over children.
In all too many cases, public educational institutions are equally intolerant when students do not stand for the national anthem. In Louisiana, Bossier Parish’s superintendent of schools, Scott Smith, warned student athletes in 2017 that kneeling or sitting during the anthem would have disciplinary consequences. According to Smith, “It is a choice for students to participate in extracurricular activities, not a right, and we at Bossier schools feel strongly that our teams and organizations should stand in unity to honor our nation’s military and veterans.” In Shreveport, principal Waylon Bates of Parkway High School warned that athletes who failed to stand for the national anthem could be removed from their teams. After a Native-American football player from California’s San Pasqual High School kneeled during the national anthem at a game, he was subjected to racial slurs, and a cheerleader for his team was sprayed with a water bottle. The San Pasqual Valley Unified School District responded by upholding this heckler’s veto and requiring coaches and students to stand with their hats and helmets off during the National Anthem. Thankfully, a federal court overruled the policy. In Collier County, Florida, in 2016 public schools attempted to extend the parental permission rule to students who kneel during the anthem.
The pledge and the anthem are homilies to the state. Both refer to the official flag. The pledge refers to “the republic”—our system of government—and to the “liberty and justice” that government supposedly recognizes. The anthem refers to America as “the land of the free”—ironically, since slavery enjoyed government support at the time it was written. Francis Scott Key, its author, was a state prosecutor who targeted abolitionists and slaves and attempted to censor radical antislavery literature.
The danger to free speech posed by the policies detailed above is clear. Government schools are forcing students to take part in a political ritual. Those who believe that such policies are necessary to prevent students from being disruptive ought to ponder precisely how sitting or kneeling quietly is disruptive. It is the people incapable of reacting in a calm, reasonable manner who are being disruptive. The claim that forcing people to stand is not a free speech violation, because they are not actually forced to recite any words is unpersuasive. If only spoken and written words are protected under freedom of speech and expression, the government would have the right to ban people from wearing religious symbols, making religious or patriotic art, displaying the American flag or reciting the pledge and anthem themselves.
These policies seem to violate the Supreme Court’s 1943 West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette ruling that students cannot be forced to recite the pledge or salute the flag. However, there are two reasons why these policies have been able to stand. First, the court never specifically addresses whether students can be forced to stand. It is possible that the court felt that this was implicit in the judgment. It is also possible that they considered it beyond the scope of the case at hand. Second, the Barnette case dealt with Jehovah’s Witnesses, who felt that they had been forced to violate their religious teachings. By requiring parental permission for students not to stand for the pledge or anthem, school officials may feel that they have gotten around Barnette. However, compelling children to participate in patriotic and/or pro-government rituals is a clear violation of the spirit of Barnette. Even the current conservative Supreme Court might rule against this kind of forced patriotism if a case such as India Landry’s ever makes it onto their docket. In the meantime, however, these policies are in place. And, despite the laudable resistance offered by some students and parents and by groups such as the ACLU, they are neglected by much of the public in favor of cases involving censorship of conservative or religious expression. Religious and conservative Americans should have their free speech rights upheld. But ignoring censorship that does not fit a particular narrative betrays a lack of concern for the principle of free speech.
In 2017, the University of Helsinki noted the continuity between the hyper-patriotic indoctrination of children by the Soviet Union and the current emphasis on “civic education, grounded in strong patriotism” under Putin. In Russia, encouraging children to think for themselves is less important than promoting loyalty to the state. Russia was essentially a totalitarian state under both the tsars and the communists and remains one to the present day. For now, the US has far greater freedom of speech. But we must consider the parallels between some of our attempts to enforce blind patriotism through coercion and those of much more repressive countries.
[…] material, a right the government unfortunately exercises. And as I wrote about here, many conservative parts of the country try to force children in public schools to stand for the […]
We can agree to disagree, but I see a fundamental disdain in your opinion of French that I do not see in French’s opinion on gays.
“I realize you don’t believe marriage should be a government institution, but what I am asking is whether you believe that in a world where it is a government institution, the “civil marriage for heterosexual couples, civil unions for gay couples” system is fair/libertarian.” I think the arrangement you describe is a mistake. The government can recognize unions for the extension of benefits but should not be in the business of deciding what is and is not a marriage. I think I am clear here. If you’re asking what I think is worse, the government recognizing heterosexual unions as marriages but not homosexual unions, or the government recognizing both heterosexual and homosexual unions as marriages, I’d say the bigger mistake is probably recognizing one as a marriage and not the other. This doesn’t mean it’s not a mistake, just that’s it’s the lesser mistake of those two specific options. The… Read more »
Speaking from the perspective of one who conducted the same protest in 1974, I applaud the state for inculcating the foundation of loyalty to one’s fellow citizens, and I also applaud the student for conducting his protest. I sincerely hope that the protester learned the very important lesson of remaining outwardly calm in the face of authority’s provocations, which is essential to the maintenance of focusing attention on the precise activity defining a protest of that nature.
Without the rule to pledge, the protest becomes meaningless as rejection of arbitrary authority.
Curbing the excesses of the state and the polity requires constant frictions, else devolution into authoritarianism ensues.
It seems to me that if we can take examples from elementary schools and make the protests of minor children into something that should inform adults, then we are putting ourselves and our laws in the strange position of invalidating every cultural tradition in the history of law – which reasonably treats children differently than adults. I’m reading this story and it has the feeling of someone telling of a miraculous revelation from an elderly woman on her deathbed – some great portent of universal significance. There’s a reason that children should be seen and not heard – which is rather how the law sees them. It’s because they don’t fully understand what’s going on. So most of the time it is appropriate for them to simply do what they are told and get over themselves, especially in school. Elementary school is not a sandbox for expressionism, it is about… Read more »
A rather old article on the socialist view of free speech. It is significant that the Socialist Party of Great Britain, Britain’s oldest socialist party formed in 1904, is one of the very organisations that will openly debate with any and every strand of political opinion including even fascists, on the grounds that suppressing free speech implies an obnoxious and contemptuous attitude towards workers and their capacity to grasp, or see through, an argument. That in turn implies a belief in the principle of vanguardism or political leadership which the SPGB vigorously oppose as fundamentally undemocratic in spirit and practice https://www.worldsocialism.org/spgb/socialist-standard/1986/1980s/no-983-july-1986/socialists-and-free-speech/
Overall, I think this was a pretty good article. I do have one minor quibble: you refer to laws forcing students to stand during the Pledge of Allegiance and National Anthem as “censorship”. However, it seems to me that these laws are closer to compelled speech than censorship, which arguably makes them even worse.
[…] Enforcing Patriotism, Suppressing Dissent: America’s Neglected Free Speech Crisis […]
I think free speech is over. That’s so 1960s. All you do now is call political opposition hate speech and it’s over. Or, social media take-downs. No due process. No, the new thing is freedom of religion. If a muslim is offended by images of Mohammed, the images go. Also, people are not exactly thrilled about being shot or beheaded. The baker in Masterpiece Cakeshop vs. Colorado Human Rights Commission won on freedom of religion.
What we are beginning to understand is that progressivism is a religion.
I can use your own logic against you. If the pledge was about allegiance to the federal government and not the values the country was built upon, then the lyrics would go “I pledge allegiance to the federal government”, and not “to the flag”. The founding fathers wanted the federal government as small as possible as they viewed government as essentially an arm of tyranny. They wanted to maximize the freedom of the states and ultimately the individual (obviously they did not live up to the these values for all, but that is besides the point). The pledge is not to a body of government but to something that transcends government. Regardless, I always breathe a small sigh of relief when I see people on the left showing admiration for libertarian principals such as free speech. But I am curious if you apply your position neutrally. Would you stand for… Read more »
What a crisis. Superintendent Chalmers needs to get a handle on these schools. Next thing you know Lunch Lady Doris will be taking away the kids’ gluten-free option.
“Students in schools paid for with tax dollars are ordered to stand as a sign of respect for the federal government.”
Nobody is ordered to stand as a sign of respect for the federal government. They stand for the flag and the values the flag represents such as democracy and liberty. Ironically, forced respect for the federal government is antithetical to those values.
I’m only two sentences in so far, but this particular point seemed to be worth addressing.
Obviously students shouldn’t be forced to stand for the pledge, regardless of whether the pledge pays homage to the federal government or universal values. Part of what makes America great is the freedom to hate America, even if that hate is based on incredibly naive ideas.
Everyone is in favor of their own free speech (including, for instance, Vladimir Putin). The test of your commitment to free speech as a general principle is whether you are willing to tolerate the speech of others, especially those with whom you most disagree. If you are using your speech to try to silence speech, you are not in favor of free speech. You are only in favor of yourself. It’s highly disingenuous for leftists who don’t believe in the First Amendment nor the concept of free speech (nor the Second, for that matter) to come crying that their free speech rights are being violated. “Fuck free speech!” they chanted: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2cMYfxOFBBM A professor from Yale said that “free speech has been weaponized by the Right” in order to attack higher education and that “we” need to protect the institution. An internal company briefing produced by Google and leaked argues that… Read more »
Kneeling is the best option! You demonstrate to everyone that you were a slave, now you are a slave and you want to be a slave forever. This is the pinnacle of the art of grievance