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ACLU urges six WV schools to review student policies that may violate First Amendment

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ACLU urges six WV schools to review student policies that may violate First Amendment

Jun 13, 2024 | 5:28 pm ET
By Caity Coyne
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ACLU urges six WV schools to review student policies that may violate First Amendment
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First graders at Longstreth Elementary School pledge allegiance to the flag March 24, 2004 in Warminster, Pennsylvania. The ACLU-WV today issued a notice to six West Virginia schools that policies in their student handbooks may violate students’ First Amendment rights by requiring them to participate in certain activities like standing for flag-raising ceremonies and the Pledge of Allegiance and removing hats for the national anthem, among other things (Photo by William Thomas Cain/Getty Images)

Six West Virginia schools were notified Thursday that policies in their student handbooks may violate students’ First Amendment rights by requiring them to participate in certain activities like standing for flag-raising ceremonies and the Pledge of Allegiance and removing hats for the national anthem, among other things.

The notice — which was sent as a letter to the schools — came from the West Virginia arm of the American Civil Liberties Union on the 81st anniversary of the landmark legal case West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette. In 1949, The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in that case that students cannot be forced or compelled to salute a flag or recite the Pledge in schools. Policies that direct otherwise, according to the case, are a clear violation of the students’ freedom of speech.

“The Constitution affords protection for Americans to freely express our beliefs and ideas. That protection expands beyond written and spoken word; it extends to symbolic speech as well,” ACLU-WV Legal Director Aubrey Sparks wrote in the letter. “One powerful way that people can express themselves is by choosing to remain silent when everyone else is agreeing, or remaining sitting when everyone else stands. Barnette codified that right. Students still have that right in schools today.”

Staff from the ACLU, according to a news release, reviewed student handbooks for all schools in the state to ensure their policies were compliant with the rulings in Barnette. 

Schools that received the letters due to having policies in violation of the law are: Calhoun Middle/High School, Riverside High School in Kanawha County, Summers County Comprehensive High School, Richwood High School in Nicholas County, Sissonville Middle School in Kanawha County and John Adams Middle School, also in Kanawha County.

The policies in the student handbook vary school by school. 

Riverside High, for example, directs that students must rise and remove hats during the national anthem and flag ceremonies held during extracurricular activities.

At Sissonville and John Adams middle schools, the handbooks state that students must stand for the Pledge of Allegiance during class. If they don’t recite the Pledge, they must remain silent.

The letters sent Thursday urge leaders at the listed schools to review their policies with consideration of the Barnette ruling and amend them if needed to “ensure that they meet constitutional obligations.”

“Schools are often the first places that students learn about their civic obligations, their constitutional rights, and the importance of being brave enough to engage in speech that’s not always popular,” Sparks wrote in the letter. “The First Amendment exists to safeguard the diversity of thought and expression, which are essential components of a thriving democratic society. Protecting free speech in public schools is paramount, something that was determined by the Supreme Court in West Virginia v. Barnette eighty-one years ago.”