ACLU Calls on Public Schools Across Maryland to Protect Students’ First Amendment Rights

Affiliate: ACLU of Maryland
November 29, 2005 12:00 am

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School Officials Unlawfully Harass and Punish Students Who Refuse to Participate in “Pledge of Allegiance,” Says ACLU

BALTIMORE — Acting on behalf of public school students who have been harassed or punished for declining to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland is calling on school officials to take action to ensure that teachers and administrators understand the First Amendment rights of students.

With the hope of raising awareness and promoting discussion of patriotic exercises, the ACLU of Maryland has sent a letter on the issue to Nancy Grasmick, State Superintendent of Schools, and Carl Smith, head of the Maryland Association of Boards of Education, along with letters to the individual Boards of Education of each Maryland county.

“As the conflict in Iraq continues, we have seen heightened emotions over the Pledge in public schools across the state,” said Richard Griffiths, an attorney with the ACLU of Maryland. “The ACLU was founded in response to hostility towards dissent during World War I, and we strongly believe during difficult times our democracy is strengthened, not threatened, by a diversity of voices.”

The ACLU said it has been approached in the past few months by parents seeking help in Frederick County, Carroll County, Baltimore County, Prince George’s County and St. Mary’s County, after their children have been physically forced to salute the flag, harassed for declining to say the Pledge of Allegiance or denied the right to wear T-shirts critical of the Bush administration. The ACLU of Maryland believes these troubling incidents need to be addressed on both county and state levels to ensure that teachers and students understand that the recitation of the Pledge is not mandatory.

State law requires schools to furnish the opportunity for patriotic exercise, but the same law provides for both teachers and students to be excused from participating in those exercises. In addition, the Supreme Court has long held that individuals have the right to choose whether or not to participate in prescribed acts of patriotism. Ruling in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette in 1943, the Court wrote, “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.”

“School officials should seize this opportunity to show strong support of students’ rights, and to educate students about the importance of the First Amendment,” said ACLU of Maryland Legal Director Deborah A. Jeon, citing the example of a St. Mary’s high school principal who promised to personally speak to a class about free speech after the students’ teacher erroneously ordered that all students must stand for the Pledge. “We think this approach sends exactly the right message about the school’s respect for our Constitution.”

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