February 24, 2010

An Apology Properly Required

This one isn't even a close call for me.

The mother of a 13-year-old Montgomery County middle school student is demanding an apology from a teacher who had school police escort the youngster from a classroom for refusing to say the Pledge of Allegiance.

The unidentified student was mocked by other children in her class and has been too traumatized to return to Roberto Clemente Middle School in Germantown, according to Ajmel Quereshi, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland who is representing the family.

A school spokesman said Tuesday that the teacher's actions were a clear violation of the school's regulations, which are based on state law. The teacher, who also has not been identified by either side, will have to apologize to the student, spokesman Dana Tofig said.

No person is required to say the Pledge of Allegiance, not even students in a public school. That was settled in the 1940s, at the height of WWII, in the Barnette case. As our men in uniform fought them menaces of German Nazism, Italian Fascism, and Japanese militarism, Justice Frankfurter affirmed an essential truth about the character of our nation.

The case is made difficult not because the principles of its decision are obscure but because the flag involved is our own. Nevertheless, we apply the limitations of the Constitution with no fear that freedom to be intellectually and spiritually diverse or even contrary will disintegrate the social organization. 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. We can have intellectual individualism and the rich cultural diversities that we owe to exceptional minds only at the price of occasional eccentricity and abnormal attitudes. When they are so harmless to others or to the State as those we deal with here, the price is not too great. But freedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order. 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. (BOLD ADDED)

A quarter-century later, the Supreme Court again dealt with the liberties of even the youngest child in a school setting in the Tinker decision.

First Amendment rights, applied in light of the special characteristics of the school environment, are available to teachers and students. It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate. (BOLD ADDED)

Thus, it cannot be denied that the student was absolutely within her rights to not participate in the Pledge (and, presumably, to remain seated during the Pledge). It cannot be denied that the teacher in this case violated the student's rights by exercising the authority granted her by the state in such a manner as to attempt to coerce speech from this girl, and to use law enforcement personnel as a part of a scheme to punish her for lawful behavior. An apology is the MINIMUM needed here.

Personally, I'd argue that what is necessary goes far beyond an apology. Most teachers learn about these cases during their college career. Every certified administrator does, as they are required to take coursework in school law as a part of their certification program. What's more, specific district policy informs students (and, presumably, teachers and administrators who should be familiar with those policies) of the student's rights in this regard. What we have here is, minimally, professional incompetence that merits retraining, and possibly professional misconduct that ought to result in termination from current employment and sanctions against professional credentials.

And lest anyone ask what I've got against the Pledge, don't. I'm proud to lead it daily in my classroom. But I revere the Constitution more, and believe that we do greater harm to our nation by teaching our students conformity through coerced patriotic speech than some kid does by sitting silently when the Pledge is recited.

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Comments on An Apology Properly Required have to say the pledge unless you have a note from your parents. It is state law.

|| Posted by david garcia, February 27, 2010 09:44 PM ||

" have to say the pledge unless you have a note from your parents. It is state law."

Uh . . . that state law would probably not withstand constitutional scrutiny under the cases cited in the post. That would be the U.S. Constitution.

|| Posted by wllsu, February 27, 2010 10:42 PM ||

I'll abide by what the Supreme Court has said on the matter.

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