Nationwide debate over personal and politically-motivated protests of the Pledge of Allegiance, the National Anthem, and the American flag have long simmered, thanks in part to professional athletes like Colin Kaepernick. But athletes aren't the only ones who've refused to stand for patriotic expressions — and faced backlash for it. After allegedly violating a student's right to protest the Pledge of Allegiance, a Michigan teacher has been placed on leave.
The father of an 11-year-old boy enrolled in the sixth-grade at East Middle School in the Detroit area has accused a teacher of "violently snatching" his son from his seat and physically forcing him to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, according to The Washington Post. The student had reportedly been protesting the Pledge of Allegiance — instead keeping a personal pledge to honor God and his family — since the second grade without any issue.
According to the Associated Press, the student said he had been quietly doing homework as the Pledge was being observed by other students in class on Sept. 7 when a female teacher confronted him. "I told the lady that I don't stand for the pledge and she just kind of glared at me," the boy told the Associated Press. "I was confused when it happened because I didn't know what was going on. And then I was irritated because that's not supposed to happen." The boy reported being "yelled at" to stand for the Pledge the next day by a separate teacher.
But are students required to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance? The answer is a clear and resounding no. But while the Supreme Court ruled in 1943 in the case of West Virginia State Bd.of Educ. v. Barnette that the Free Speech Clause in the First Amendment gave students the constitutional right to refrain from participating in saying the Pledge of Allegiance or saluting the American flag, incidents of students being forced or unfairly reprimanded for opting out in protest persist.
In 2010, a teacher in a Maryland school had school security escort a student out of class after the student refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. The school spokesperson said the teacher violated regulations and will apologize to the student.
In April of 2013, a student in that same Maryland school district told the ACLU she was "harassed and intimidated by teachers and an assistant principal" for refusing to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance out of protest over U.S. polices on Puerto Rico.
In October 2015, a male teacher in New York reportedly became "aggressive" and "intimidating" toward a student who had been protesting the Pledge of Allegiance for over a year by "quietly remaining seated," the legal arm of the nonprofit American Humanist Association reported. According to the Appignani Humanist Legal Center, which advocated on behalf of the student, the teacher reduced the student to tears by using profanities toward her, calling her "disrespectful" and "selfish." The teacher also told the student she would be forced to stand for the Pledge from then on.
In September of 2016, a teacher in California lowered the grade of a freshman student who had been protesting the Pledge of Allegiance since the second grade for personal reasons related to her indigenous heritage. According to Vox, the teacher told the student she didn't have the right to protest the Pledge of Allegiance and was being "disrespectful." The student, who the school district later confirmed did have the right to protest the pledge, was moved to another teacher's class.
And finally, in July it was reported that a teacher in Indianapolis had been reprimanded by school administrators the year before for simply letting his students know they had the right to opt out of saying the Pledge of Allegiance if they so desired.
Under the law, public schools can't discipline students who decide to quietly and respectfully opt out of patriotic rituals like the Pledge of Allegiance as doing so would constitute a violation of the student's right to free speech. Moreover, many, including the Supreme Court justices behind the court case establishing the legal precedent behind a student's right to sit, kneel, or keep quiet during the Pledge, have questioned the effectiveness of making such patriotic rituals compulsory rather than voluntary.
"To believe that patriotism will not flourish if patriotic ceremonies are voluntary and spontaneous instead of a compulsory routine is to make an unflattering estimate of the appeal of our institutions to free minds," SCOTUS Justice Robert Jackson wrote in his majority opinion for West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette.