Earlier this month a high school principal in Houston, Texas made a student leave when she wouldn’t stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. An experienced student discipline attorney could have advised her against it.
India Landry’s action was not new. She had sat for the Pledge for as long as she could remember. “I don’t think that the flag is what it says it’s for, for liberty and justice and all that. It’s not obviously what’s going on in America today,” she said to reporters. But this time the school called India’s mother and told her to come get her daughter. The mother says the principal told her, “She can’t come to my school if she won’t stand for the Pledge.”
Once India made the news her story took turns. Officials at her school brought up India’s grades and absences with her mother as a way to justify keeping her out. When her mother offered to write a note allowing her to sit, per the district’s written policy, the school reportedly refused to accept it. Officials then made an about-face. They issued a statement that they would not remove any student from campus for refusing to stand for the Pledge but would instead “address this situation internally.”
Sitting for the Pledge is a form of free speech. As any Connecticut student discipline attorney can advise, students in Connecticut’s public schools have a general right to speak freely.
There are limits. Officials have to keep order. Administrators can limit their students’ speech when they know it will disrupt classes, keep other students from exercising their rights or create a disturbance.
If India Landry had sat for the Pledge in a Connecticut school, no official could take action against her. That has been the law in this state since the days of protests against the war in Vietnam. Just like India, students then sat because they felt America didn’t give liberty and justice to all. Without proof of disorder or disturbance, officials had to respect their right to free speech.
Not everyone in Houston believed that held true there, too. TV station KHOU quoted a “local civil rights attorney” who said that India could speak freely because “the school is treated like a government.” That is not quite right. A student discipline attorney in Connecticut knows that our schools don’t have to allow students that much freedom. To keep order among children, school officials have more authority than government officials do to limit speech. It’s easy to imagine a student scaring others in ways that would not bother adults.
Also curious, if true, was this school’s policy on the Pledge. Reportedly students could not sit unless they had a note from a parent. This, too, would not pass muster in Connecticut, and would be resisted by any student discipline attorney. A parent has no more of a constitutional right to limit their child’s speech than the school does.
The Pledge of Allegiance seems to inspire adolescent minds to think about their world. India’s Principal told her, “This isn’t the NFL, you won’t do this here.” But India had been sitting for a while, so it seems that her sitting suddenly inspired adults more than students.
Half a century ago different tensions gripped our country. Students in the Sixties had different reasons for thinking the US was not worth pledging allegiance to.
Perhaps the only conclusion is that adolescents will always annoy adults. But as one judge observed, “While we do not share plaintiff’s resistance to pledging allegiance to this nation, his reservations of belief must be protected. In time, perhaps, he will recognize that such protection is sound ground for a firmer trust in his country.”