Canton High School Students’ Protests Protected by 70 Year Old Court Ruling
By Max Macort
Student protests are far from a new phenomena: clothing, posters, and student voices can be seen throughout American history as proponents for change. One does not have to look further than the landmark Brown v. The Board of Education case that desegregated schools and helped spur the Civil Rights to see the tremendous impact students can have on the country. Students at Canton High are no different, supporting and defending various causes through posters, fundraisers, and clubs such as the new feminism club (run by Spectrum member Lydia Pendergast). However, no student action has been as controversial as the refusal of some of Canton High’s student body to rise and pledge allegiance to the flag.
The Pledge of Allegiance was written in 1892 as part of an initiative to put the American flag into every classroom, enhancing the nation’s patriotism. Schools quickly adopted it, yet the significance of the pledge was changed when in 1954 the phrase ‘under God’ was added directly after ‘one nation’. President Eisenhower endorsed the change, saying it “reaffirmed the transcendence of religious faith in America’s heritage and faith”. Critics argued that a country founded on the ideal freedom should not force its citizens to pledge allegiance to the flag, nor to a single God.
However the religious connotation is far from the only reason as to why students abstain from participating in the pledge. One CHS student gave their reasoning for sitting as that they “cannot stand and agree with the statement ‘Liberty and Justice for all’ because (they) don’t feel that it is applicable to our current climate”, and that “so long as there is racism and sexism on an institutional level, they will not agree with it”. The student does however, stand for the moment of silence to “respect and honor those who have served our country”.
Even despite the efforts of several students, such as the former, to find ways to both support their beliefs and honor the military, some students and teachers find the action ineffective, if not offensive. “Standing for the pledge of allegiance shows that you appreciate and respect the people that fought for our freedom,” said a CHS teacher, “To sit for the pledge I don’t think is a valuable protest…. If there is something you are upset about you should protest that and not the flag”. Another teacher likened the student protests to those of Colin Kaepernick, saying that after reading about the protests of both Kaepernick and other NFL players they “respect the NFL players protesting, but also those who take the middle ground; supporting their teammates while going a different route”, going on to say that they are “more and more disenchanted with those who align only good Americans as those who stand and participate in the Anthem,”.
While the viewpoints around the school are far from homogenous, the law protects the student protesters from punishment or retaliation of any kind. The first case asserting that students not participating in the pledge were protected by the First Amendment came in 1943, when a group of Jehovah’s Witness students refused to participate in the (then) secular ritual. More recently, the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) has won similar cases defending students in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Florida, Texas, and Maine.
Canton High Principal Derek Folan acknowledged the importance of standing for the pledge, saying that is “incredibly important, it’s certainly a symbolic gesture and a moment in time that we take each day to really show respect to our country and the flag that symbolizes that,”. He went on to recognize that although he hopes that all students will take part in such a powerful moment, he also feels as though “if you believe in those values and the flag - having freedom and rights - as principal you have to be equally respectful of someone that chooses to sit. That is in accordance with both my beliefs and the law…. There is always that tension between what we hope for and what we believe, and also the rights of folks,”.
Some of the tension is certainly a byproduct of lack of understanding, between both protesters and their critics.There is a discrepancy between the intentions and repercussions of the protest rooted in the varying interpretations of the flag. Supporters of the protest describe the pledge (and to a large extent the American Flag) as representing the American ideals of liberty and equality, however, those who oppose it view the pledge as a tribute to American soldiers.
Whether the protest is politically and socially acceptable or not, it has been effective in starting valuable conversations between students, staff, and administration. Being able to have these kinds of difficult conversations is essential to the development of students, and, as history has illustrated, social progress often begins with America’s future.