Compulsion to speech

There’s a new state law in North Carolina that says all classrooms have to display the American flag and that time must be set aside each day to recite the pledge of allegiance.

Arguments about the pledge as a pseudo-religious activity aside, the only problem I see with this is that the pledge loses its meaning when it’s forced. It’s like Islamic states that require women to wear burqas by law: when there is no choice in an action, when there is no decision either to wear or not to wear, to recite or not to recite; then the repetition of any action is rendered meaningless because the participant didn’t willingly engage, or otherwise decide anything about, the activity.

To put it another way, it’s like Wooley v. Maynard (1976) where the Supreme Court decided it was unconstitutional for New Hampshire to require citizens to display the slogan “Live Free or Die” on all its license plates. The rationale was that forced speech, especially forced “political” speech as it was in this case, cuts right against the First Amendment. But, there is a big difference between Wooley v. Maynard and the state laws about required pledge of allegiance recitation (37 states currently have such laws). The difference is that the new law pertains to schools, which are comprised almost entirely of minors, who have “less” rights as a citizen, perhaps even no rights, when compared to their adult counterparts.

So the law will most likely stay (in fact, I’m sure of it), because it’s not “patriotic” to oppose a law that’s all about praising the American flag and devoting yourself to American ideals. But for the reasons listed above, there’s something unsettling about this law, no matter how innocuous it appears on its surface. After all, our state motto is Esse quam videre, “to be rather than to seem.”

5 thoughts on “Compulsion to speech

  1. Adam Reply

    I think it’s important to distinguish states’ requiring schools to have a time during which the pledge is recited, and actually compelling individuals to recite the pledge. The way constitutional law stands, the first is permissible; the second is not. The Sherman case sets the precedent for that, from what I can tell. So, under the First Amendment, any child has the right to not recite the pledge. And the North Carolina law, from reading the article, doesn’t cross that line.That doesn’t address whether it’s a good idea or not. I’m afraid that, as I suspect it has been for a long time (We always had the pledge, as long as I can recall, so I was unaware that it had ever gone out of fashion), the pledge will simply be meaningless and rote to most students. I think a lot depends on how schools treat it, which the article got at as well. If it is incorporated as part of (or in addition to) a serious dialectical discussion of the merits of informed citizenship, then I fail to see it as a bad thing. Blind, unthinking patriotism is like anything else that is believed or undertaken without serious thought and consideration–it is foolish. But that doesn’t mean that all patriotism is inherently bad for society, and introducing students to it–and to what it really means, including the free exercise of basic liberal rights–can’t help but be socially desirable.

  2. David Hodges Reply

    good analysis. but, how many “kids” know they have the right not to recite the pledge? it’s one of those, teacher says so i do type of things. if there’s no real ability to opt out, then yea, i think it remains rote and meaningless. but the stuff about a side-by-side study of citizenship is good. that would make the pledge make more sense because it would give it context.

  3. Brian Reply

    Whether or not the pledge is used as part of a “dialectic discussion of the merits of informed citizenship,” there is nothing wrong with reciting the pledge. There are many things we do as kids that we only come to understand later. I doubt that a kindergarten class is going to discuss the merits of informed citizenship. Secondly, how is reciting the pledge “blind, unthinking patriotism”? Lastly, what is “blind patriotism”? Patriotism is defined as a love of country. I suppose then, “blind love” would mean you are unaware of the faults of the object you love. But would that really be love? Can you really love something or somebody you don’t know? If you can’t, wouldn’t it make more sense to differentiate between patriotism and ignorance rather than patriotism and “blind patriotism”?

  4. Adam Reply

    I didn’t mean to suggest that kindergarteners would be able to understand the full import of what they’re saying. But at some point before their mandatory education is finished they should understand it, and I feel like the job being done by the school system now isn’t adequate for the majority of students. It’s more a topic for a middle school or high school civics or government class, and beginning to say the pledge at an early age provides a basis and a vocabulary for that education to take place at a later time, when a better job needs to be done than currently is of creating informed citizens. Blind patriotism isn’t in and of itself necessarily bad for society, but the existence of large numbers of uninformed citizens who don’t understand the responsibilities (or the greatness) of their citizenship is bad. And perhaps people can’t truly “love” their country unless they understand it. But they can give all of the outward expressions of it. Further, most of these people who are uninformed (or misinformed) but still demonstrate patriotic expressions actually believe that they are informed. They then become ripe for exploitation, whether by their own passions or by external influences, which in turn can lead to nationalism, which in its most extreme form places support of the State above all other social and political concerns and principles. History is clear as to nationalism’s dangers. That is what I meant by “blind patriotism”; I will concede that I could have used a better, more precise phrase.

  5. Brian Reply

    Your point about schools is well taken. Public schools in this country stink. They don’t teach civic virtue, let alone reading or writing. I think that in an ideal world, however, you are correct. Students should have the vocabulary (the pledge) at a young age and then the deeper instruction at an older age.As far as blind patriotism goes, I understood what you were saying. It is a fairly common term. I was just trying to make a point about a common term that people use. People throw the term patriotism around a lot. For example, the bumper stickers that read, “Peace is patriotic” or “dissent is patriotic.” I just want to go up to people and ask, “Is it?” Not that one can’t dissent and be patriotic. But does love of country automatically flow from dissent or peace? If you translate the terms, they make no sense. For example, “dissent is patriotic” means “to differ in sentiment or opinion is to have love of country.” It makes no sense. Just like “war is patriotic” or “concurrence is patriotic” would make no sense.

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