I know what you are thinking: Dr. Simpson, you are treading where angels fear to tread! I have been told that before. However, I believe deep down in my soul that this issue should be addressed. I cite two United States Supreme Court cases which establish a strong precedent for the right of K-12 students to petition the government.
The first case is the West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette ruling in 1943, during World War II. This time is often considered the most patriotic and unified time in American History. The West Virginia State Board of Education ordered that the salute to the flag be a regular part of the program of activities in the public schools, and that all teachers and pupils be required to participate in the salute honoring the nation represented by the flag. It was clearly stated that refusal to salute the Flag be regarded as an Act of insubordination, and would be dealt with accordingly.
This policy was enforced against Jehovah’s Witnesses, who considered the flag a graven image. Any salute or pledge to the Flag was considered bowing down to an image. They instructed their children not to salute or pledge the flag.
The Supreme Court ruled that the action of the local authorities in compelling the flag salute and pledge transcended constitutional limitations on the power and invaded the sphere of intellect and spirit which it is the purpose of the First Amendment to our Constitution to reserve from all official control. The State of West Virginia could not require children in Jehovah’s Witness families to salute or pledge the flag. Some may argue the citizens in Germany and Japan would have never been permitted to publicly show this level of defiance, and you would be correct. Had they been free to do so, the tide of history may have turned. But they lost the war and we won.
The second United States Supreme Court ruling that sets an even more powerful precedent to this issue is the Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District ruling in 1969. In December 1965, a group of adults and students determined to publicize their objections to the hostilities in Vietnam and their support for a truce by wearing black armbands during the holiday season.
The principals in the Des Moines schools became aware of the plan to wear armbands. In December 1965, they met and adopted a policy that any students wearing armbands to school would be asked to remove them. If they refused, they would be suspended until they returned without the armbands.
Only five students were suspended for wearing them. There was no indication that the work of the school or any class was disrupted.
The Supreme Court noted that these students neither interrupted school activities nor sought to intrude into the school affairs or the lives of others. They caused discussions outside of the classrooms, but no interference with work and no disorder. The Supreme Court ruled that in these circumstances, our Constitution does not permit officials of the State to deny citizens, in this case students, their form of expression. These students had the right to wear black armbands and protest the Vietnam War.
When I was a middle school and high school teacher, I always wanted my students to have the courage to take a stand on controversial issues and to support causes in which they deeply believe. However, when working with students younger than age 18, additional support should be in place. These students often need guidance to think through the possible consequences to their protest. If you refuse to stand during the presentation of the National Anthem in order to call attention to the treatment of people of color by certain government officials, what may be the reactions from peers, fans, and the general public to your protest? Not everyone will be on your side. Are you prepared to stand alone?
Before you conclude that public protest with its possible negative public reaction is too much for a middle or high school student to bear, I remind you of Malala Yousafzai in Pakistan. She stood in protest to the Taliban’s war against the education of girls. A Taliban assassin boarded her bus on the way home after school and shot her in the head. She was 15 years old. I hope you know the rest of the story. This attempted assassination strengthened her resolve to fight for the education of girls. If you have not done so, go to You Tube and listen to her speech at age 17 when she received the Nobel Peace Prize:
On a personal note, this issue is very difficult for me. I have always been patriotic at the core of my values. Three of my dad’s brothers made careers out of the military. My dad and his oldest brother served in World War II. One brother served in the Korean War and the Vietnam War. The youngest brother served two tours in the Vietnam War as a helicopter pilot. A number of my cousins have also served in the military. I came of age during the Vietnam War, and while attending college had a 2-S deferment. Almost immediately after graduation in 1971, I was reclassified 1-A. I expected to be drafted at any moment. However, the government started a lottery drawing of birthdates to meet military quotas. The drawing for my birthday was well above 250, so I was never drafted. During this time in the history of our country, I was never involved in the antiwar movement, and I was deeply distressed about the treatment of our men and women in uniform. Regardless of my personal views, I defend the rights of students to protest government policies as protected by the First Amendment.
Bless you my children,
Terry L. Simpson