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There Should Not Be a Litmus Test for Patriotism

Patriotism should not be defined by engaging in patriotic rituals. 

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Standing during the playing of the national anthem is a solemn and deeply personal ritual for many people. It symbolizes a love for this country and appreciation of the freedoms that Americans enjoy. But what happens to a citizen who chooses not to stand?

A lawsuit against a Houston high school has drawn national attention against the backdrop of the bitter cultural war regarding anthem protests. In 2017 an African American student, India Landry, was temporarily suspended from her high school when she refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. Her school principal told Landry that she was going to stand for the pledge “like the other African American in the class.” When Landry did not stand, the principal expelled her from school. Landry is now suing the school district for violating her constitutional protections of free speech.      

Patriotism should not be defined by whether one chooses to engage in patriotic rituals. 

Under normal circumstances in a healthy democracy, a student who engages in a thoughtful protest would be respected as an engaged citizen and critical thinker. However, Landry’s expulsion and subsequent lawsuit against the school district should remind us that in this current political climate, there is a price to pay for being “unpatriotic.” 

Although comparisons between school protests such as Landry’s and NFL players’ anthem protests are inevitable, it is important to point out that the Supreme Court ruled in 1943 that students cannot be forced to engage in patriotic rituals such as saying the Pledge of Allegiance or standing for the national anthem. 

Why did the Supreme Court make this ruling? In West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, the Supreme Court ruled that forcing students to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance violated their First Amendment rights. 

This underscores the point that there should not be a litmus test for patriotism. Requiring people to stand and recite a pledge of allegiance that for some seems duplicitous is an act of symbolism over substance. It doesn’t matter whether people actually believe the words they are saying or singing as long as they are going through the motions and pretending to. 

This is exactly what Landry’s school was asking her to do. Regarding the Pledge of Allegiance, Landry said that she felt the flag did not represent what it stands for, liberty and justice for all. She did not feel that is what’s going on in the country today.

Landry’s actions were probably motivated by the polarizing racial climate in this country, fueled in part by highly publicized shooting deaths of unarmed black people and rhetoric that has emboldened white supremacists. Landry might have been aware of the recent killing of Botham Jean by Dallas police officer Amber Guyger, who said she mistakenly entered Jean’s apartment thinking it was hers and then shot him. Landry might have been influenced by President Donald Trump’s response to the Charlottesville riots. Or perhaps Landry is disturbed by the fact that more than 1,000 immigrant kids are still separated from their undocumented immigrant parents. 

The point here is that these events, plus countless others, provide a context for why Landry and others do not believe that the flag represents “liberty and justice for all.” Regardless of whether someone agrees with Landry, is punishment how we should treat students who peacefully exercise their First Amendment right to freedom of speech? 

According to Texas statute 25.082 and Attorney General Ken Paxton, the answer is yes. Paxton defends the Texas statute, stating that it fosters “… respect for our flag and a patriotic love of our country.”

There is arguably nothing more patriotic than the act of protest itself. In many ways, protest is quintessentially American. Patriotism can take many forms: running for office, advocating for your community, serving in the military or as a police officer or teacher, and yes, standing up for justice by kneeling down on one knee.

In a time when the news is dominated with tawdry scandals by our leaders and other powerful people, Landry should be applauded, not vilified, for acting in accordance to her moral convictions.

Kevin Cokley is the Oscar and Anne Mauzy Regents Professor of Educational Research and Development and director of the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis at The University of Texas at Austin. He is also a fellow of the UT System Academy of Distinguished Teachers.

A verison of this op-ed appeared in The Hill

To view more op-eds from Texas Perspectives, click here.

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