Can a Student Be Punished for Peaceful Protest?

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on October 11, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The morning of Monday, October 2, 2017, Windfern High School Principal Martha Strother witnessed senior student India Landry sitting during the recital of the Pledge of Allegiance over the school's intercom. Landry had allegedly been sitting through the pledge since her freshman year, "around 200 times in class through six or more teachers without incident." But Principal Strother's response on this occasion was curt and definitive: "Well you're kicked outta here."

Landry was expelled from Windfern High, told she would only be allowed to return if she "was going to stand for the pledge like the other African-American [sic] in her class," and finally readmitted after negative coverage of the expulsion from local news. All of which, and Landry's mother's lawsuit against the school district, begs the question: can public schools discipline students for peaceful protests?

School of Thought

Ever since 1943, schools cannot make students recite the Pledge of Allegiance, much less force them to stand during its playing. But that didn't deter Principal Strother, who had allegedly been "whipped into a frenzy by the publicity of Africa-American National Football League players kneeling for the National Anthem." In fact, Assistant Principal Penny Irwin-Fitt told Landry, "This is not the NFL," and gave Landry's mom five minutes to pick her daughter up or have her escorted from the school by police.

Strother expelled Landry, and then after repeated assertions that she must stand for the nation anthem if re-accepted, Strother "suggested that India write about justice and African Americans being killed." Strother then eventually returned to her position that if India does not stand for the pledge she cannot return to Windfern. Whether Strother learned from his mistake, or feared a lawsuit, she eventually changed her punishment the morning after KHOU Channel 11 reported on the "pledge controversy."

Free Speech in Schools

While it is well established law that students at public schools can't be forced to recite or stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, that doesn't mean there aren't any limits on their free speech rights at school. From school dress codes to banned books, schools are granted significant leeway in creating learning and safety policies that might impinge on the First Amendment.

So while you can sit out the Pledge of Allegiance, other forms of peaceful protest, especially those that interfere with other students' learning process or become a safety risk, might be curtailed.

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