The viral news story of an 11-year-old student who was arrested in Lakeland, Florida, over an alleged classroom disturbance is raising questions about a long-settled legal argument: Can students be forced to stand for, or recite, the Pledge of Allegiance?
The answer is no and no.
The incident reportedly began when a substitute teacher asked the student to stand for the pledge. The student, who is black, declined, saying he thought the flag was racist. The incident apparently escalated from there, with the teacher allegedly asking the boy why he doesn’t find “another place to live,” according to Spectrum’s Bay News 9.
In a statement, the Lakeland Police Department insisted that the boy was not arrested for his refusal to stand for the pledge, but for making “threats and resisting the officer’s efforts to leave the classroom.”
All the same, such confrontations shouldn’t have to escalate in such a way, because they shouldn’t happen at all. Teachers should know that students can’t be required to pledge allegiance in public schools, nor can they be punished for not participating in a pledge, because such requirements violate the basic tenets of free speech and due process.
The U.S. Supreme Court said this back in 1943, in the landmark case West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette. As Cornell Law School points out, the decision hinged on the idea that any state action making it compulsory for public school children to salute the flag and pledge allegiance violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments.
In his court opinion, Justice Robert Jackson offered this kernel of wisdom:
“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. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us.”
According to Smithsonian, the document that would become the Pledge of Allegiance dates back to a magazine article in 1892, and arguments over what place it should hold in American society—and in what format—have raged on ever since. The National Constitution Center has a nice roundup of legal challenges to the pledge on its Constitution Daily blog.