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Volume 17, Number 6
November/December 2001

Patriotism or Peer Pressure?

Renewed interest in the Pledge of Allegiance raises free-speech questions


Since September 11, students all over the country have been reciting the Pledge of Allegiance with greater frequency and fervor. The Pledge, which had gone the way of Latin class in many schools, is now returning as a daily practice in more and more classrooms. This change was highlighted by the "Pledge Across America" on October 12, during which U.S. Education Secretary Roderick Paige led students from Hawaii to Maine in a simultaneous recitation of the national oath.

While participation in that event was voluntary, there has been a recent increase in the number of states, municipalities, and school boards requiring schools to lead daily recitations of the Pledge. In the community hardest hit by the September 11 disaster, the New York City Board of Education recently voted for a daily Pledge in the city's schools; 24 states and numerous cities and towns currently have laws outlining similar requirements.

Schools may be bound by these laws, but individual students and teachers are not. Under a 1943 U.S. Supreme Court ruling (West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette), it is unconstitutional for schools to require students or teachers to recite the Pledge or to punish those who refuse to do so for religious, philosophical, or other reasons.

Though perhaps somewhat contradictory, the laws surrounding the Pledge are relatively clear. What's less clear is how these laws are actually being applied in schools. In a school where a daily Pledge is mandated, are students and teachers aware that they have the right to opt out? If so, will they feel comfortable or safe declining to participate, given the power dynamics that define the relationships among students, teachers, and administrators?

The Madison (WI) school board recently found itself in a quagmire when it attempted to address these questions under a new state law requiring schools to offer either the Pledge of Allegiance or "The Star-Spangled Banner" on a daily basis. Citing some parents' objections to the law, as well as concerns about the degree to which such participation was "coercive" in some schools, board member Bill Keys proposed—and the board approved—a solution that was already in effect at several Madison schools: schools could play an instrumental version of the anthem daily and let students choose whether to sing the anthem, salute the flag, or remain silent.

Compromise and Caveats

The board's decision sparked outrage, not only in Madison but across the country. Opponents called the vote a ban on the Pledge and anthem that deprived children of the opportunity to express their patriotism and unity at school, a charge that Keys disputes. "It was a compromise to comply with the law," he says. "It had absolutely nothing to do with a ban on the Pledge of Allegiance. We cannot ban the Pledge—that's controlling speech."

Facing intense pressure, including threats of a board recall, the cutoff of state funding, and thousands of negative emails and phone calls, the board reversed its decision. However, the board has required that all recitations of the Pledge or national anthem be preceded by the following caveat: "We live in a nation of freedom. Participation in the Pledge or anthem is voluntary. Those who wish to participate should now stand. Others may remain seated."

Particularly in a time of national crisis, students can also face peer pressure to conform to group standards of patriotism. Shelly Tougas, assistant director of communications for the Minnesota School Boards Association, which has studied the use of the Pledge in the state's schools, says that students who choose not to recite the Pledge can be targeted for bullying or be called unpatriotic by their peers. "That's a big concern of ours," Tougas says. "Sometimes the opt-out can create such a distraction that the kid who wants to opt out can't."

Some civil libertarians don't object to the Pledge in schools as long as students are aware of their right to abstain and can do so without being stigmatized. Terri Schroeder, legislative analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union, praised Secretary Paige for making the "Pledge Across America" voluntary, given the event's focus on "the foundations of our free society."

Elliot Mincberg, vice president and legal director of People for the American Way, says he believes most school officials recognize students' right to abstain from the Pledge, but that this right may not always be communicated "in an affirmative way." "I think it would be a good idea to make [the right to opt out] more clear," Mincberg says. He acknowledges, however, that doing so can seem artificial if not handled correctly: "It's awkward if teachers have to give the equivalent of a Miranda warning."

As an alternative, Mincberg recommends adding study of the Pledge to lessons on historical documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution so that students understand what rights they are afforded as Americans: "We want to do things that will bring our country together, but will also preserve the individual liberties that make our country different from a place like Afghanistan."