[freedom watch] Taking the Pledge in Brookline

A kerfuffle has arisen of late, concerning an effort by a group of Brookline citizens, led by attorney Martin Rosenthal (disclosure: a long-time friend of mine), to get the school committee to ban the organized recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in the town's public schools, in favor of pledging in less pressured and conformity-inducing settings than classrooms. It began with a page-one banner in the Boston Herald on September 8: BROOKLINE MOONBATS AT IT AGAIN: NOW THEY WANT TO BAN THE PLEDGE! The next day, the Herald quoted Governor Deval Patrick as demurring: "I don't have to have an opinion on everything." The Boston Globe seemed likewise not to jump too heavily into the fray; it felt comfortable taking a both-sides-have-merit editorial approach and pronouncing as "eminently reasonable" what it called "the compromise in place right now."

That "compromise" - that teachers will lead students in pledging, but that participation remains voluntary - is not quite the result of bargaining by both sides. There are the traditionalists who feel that it is only fitting that schoolchildren be led in pledging before school begins. And then there are those who deem such a pledge to be anathema to students' freedom from being coerced into engaging in a patriotic exercise. But the argument is truly over very little, since one of the most important decisions ever to emerge from the US Supreme Court on the scope of the First Amendment's protections has already sharply limited state laws requiring the pledge.

The applicable Massachusetts statute requires that each school committee provide a flag for every school room where "opening exercises" are held, and that teachers lead their classes in pledging each morning. The statute's command, however, is limited by the Supreme Court's instruction in West Virginia Board of Education vs. Barnette, handed down in 1943. In that case, a Jehovah's Witness child refused to pledge, arguing that such obeisance to a flag - any flag - violated a strict reading of the Biblical injunction against idol worship. The student risked being thrown out of school and exposing his parents to criminal penalties. That was a much tougher sanction than the one that the Massachusetts statute provides for Bay State teachers who refuse to lead their classes in saying the pledge: a fine of up to five dollars for each consecutive two weeks that the teacher remains recalcitrant. (The Massachusetts statute provides no penalty at all for students who refuse to pledge.)

The high court, citing the First Amendment's rights of free speech and religion, as well as the inferred right of private conscience, struck down the part of the West Virginia law that required students to pledge and penalized refusal; the Barnette child thus was permitted to remain silent while his classmates pledged. Wisely recognizing the intensity of disagreement over the issue of enforced patriotism even during a global war, the court instructed that the "freedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much," for "that would be a mere shadow of freedom."

And so there is not really much left for the good citizens of Brookline to fight over. The sole point of contention appears to be that the anti-pledge group feels that even a voluntary exercise entails a degree of coercion on children who do not wish to pledge but might be hesitant to say so. But in a free nation, where such patriotic exercises are completely voluntary, it surely is not asking too much of a young citizen to exercise the rights conferred on him or her by the Constitution and simply to sit out the pledge. It is good training for potential dissenters.

Harvey Silverglate is the author of Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent, released this past June in paperback from Encounter Books.


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