High school students leading Pledge of Allegiance tell people to say the pledge 'if they'd like to'; principal says nay

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

So reports the Portland (Maine) Press Herald (Kelley Bouchard):

Senior class president Lily SanGiovanni sparked community outrage in January when she changed the way she invited students and faculty members to recite the pledge.

"At this time," SanGiovanni said over the intercom, "would you please rise and join me for the Pledge of Allegiance if you'd like to."

It was the latest salvo in a monthslong effort by SanGiovanni and some of her friends to make it clear that reciting the pledge is optional under state and federal law, so students cannot be forced to stand and say it every morning. Although no students have filed formal complaints in recent years, SanGiovanni and her friends said they and other students have felt uncomfortable or pressured by their teachers to say it….

Supporting SanGiovanni's campaign are two other top seniors, Gaby Ferrell and Morrigan Turner, who lead the student senate and are the student representatives on the South Portland School Board.

The "if you'd like to" aroused a lot of public opposition, and the principal "asked SanGiovanni to stop saying 'if you'd like to,' or pass the privilege of leading the pledge to another student"; SanGiovanni agreed. SanGiovanni and her friends had also asked the faculty "leadership team" (12 school department heads) in September "to replace the pledge with a moment of silence during the announcements, when students would be allowed to say the pledge in their classrooms," but the team had rejected that proposal by an 11-1 vote.

A few thoughts:

1. I'm neither a strong supporter of schools' leading students in the Pledge of Allegiance nor a strong opponent. It is indeed an attempt at a particular form of ideological indoctrination, but I think some degree of indoctrination is an acceptable function of schools, including public schools. (Maybe some of these debates could be avoided by shifting to a school choice system, but I'm speaking here of the school system as it now operates.) At the same time, it's not clear to me that this is an effective form of indoctrination; isolated routine ritual that everyone is expected to perform without any real impulse on their own part is rarely effective, it seems to me.

2. The principal is entitled to tell SanGiovanni not to say "if you'd like to." She is speaking here on behalf of the school, and the Free Speech Clause doesn't bar school administrators from telling school spokespeople—whether employees or students—what to say, or choosing spokespeople who will say what the administrators want.

3. Still, the one thing that's clear here is that the Pledge is optional, and has been since 1943, when the Supreme Court held that requiring students to say the Pledge violated the Free Speech Clause. (Students are also free to say the Pledge but omit "under God," as I do.) That the pledge leaders wanted to inform students, simply and not very intrusively, that they only need to say the pledge if they'd like to say it, strikes me as pretty unobjectionable (even if we know that the pledge leaders really would rather not have an officially led pledge to begin with).

Thanks to Robert Dittmer for the pointer.

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