ACLU Urges Six West Virginia Schools to Review Student Policies That May Violate First Amendment

Six West Virginia schools received notification on Thursday that certain policies in their student handbooks may infringe on students’ First Amendment rights. These policies include requirements for students to participate in activities like standing for flag-raising ceremonies, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, and removing hats during the national anthem, among other mandates.

The notification, issued in a letter sent to the schools, was delivered by the West Virginia branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. It coincided with the 81st anniversary of the pivotal legal case West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette. This landmark case, decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1949, established that students cannot be compelled to salute a flag or recite the Pledge in school, deeming such directives a violation of their freedom of speech.

Aubrey Sparks, the Legal Director of ACLU-WV, emphasized the constitutional protection of Americans to express their beliefs and ideas freely, stating, “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.”

In a press release, ACLU staff disclosed that they scrutinized student handbooks across the state to ensure compliance with the Barnette rulings.

The schools that received letters notifying them of policy violations 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 located in Kanawha County.

The specific policies outlined in the student handbooks vary from school to school.

For instance, Riverside High School’s handbook mandates that students must stand up and remove hats during national anthem and flag ceremonies at extracurricular events.

Meanwhile, at Sissonville and John Adams middle schools, students are required to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance in class. If they opt not to recite the Pledge, they must maintain silence.

The letters dispatched on Thursday urge the school leaders mentioned to revisit their policies in light of the Barnette ruling and make necessary adjustments to ensure constitutional compliance.

Sparks reiterated the significance of safeguarding free speech in public schools, asserting, “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.”

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