2015-03-06 / Community

Guest Column

Read this column, if you’d like to
By Natalie West

Three seniors at South Portland High School have supported the freedoms that we enjoy in the United States. They deserve our encouragement – not our criticism. Verbal attacks on our students, whether these three student leaders or others who are new to our country and our community, have no place in this city.

Most readers have probably heard the facts by now: the senior class president who reads announcements and leads students in the Pledge of Allegiance included the words “if you’d like to” as part of her invitation to recite the pledge. After people became aware of that change, a few uninformed people reacted in ways that do not reflect positively on themselves or our community.

In this instance, it was three students – not the school administrators or teachers or residents – who reminded us about fundamental rights of our democracy. All of us have the right to speak, to remain silent or to omit words that are inconsistent with our individual values. Reciting the pledge is meaningful precisely because each of us has that choice.

In 1943, when this country was in the midst of the Second World War, the state of West Virginia passed a law requiring all students to salute the flag and recite almost the same pledge spoken today. “I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands; one Nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” (The words “under God” were added later.) Certain children declined to recite the pledge and were sent home from school as punishment.

The United States Supreme Court invalidated Virginia’s law. “We think the action of the local authorities in compelling the flag salute and pledge transcends constitutional limitations on their power, and invades the sphere of intellect and spirit which it is the purpose of the First Amendment to our Constitution to reserve from all official control.”

Most of the Supreme Court’s words are just as relevant today in South Portland as they were 72 years ago in West Virginia “That [schools] are educating the young for citizenship is reason for scrupulous protection of Constitutional freedoms of the individual, if we are not to strangle the free mind at its source and teach youth to discount important principles of our government as mere platitudes.”

Some of the language was even stronger. Reviewing other systems of government, the court differentiated our system of government from others. “Those who begin coercive elimination of dissent soon find themselves exterminating dissenters. Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard.”

The court further observed, “To believe that patriotism will not flourish if patriotic ceremonies are voluntary and spontaneous, instead of compulsory routine, is to make an unflattering estimate of the appeal of our institutions to free minds.”

These are words that we all need to remember today.

A few weeks ago, I attended the opening night of the high school musical “Mary Poppins.” The performance radiated positive energy and enthusiasm by all those who participated, both onstage and behind the scenes. The students did a fabulous job in their dramatic skills, singing and dance routines. The audience echoed that enthusiasm as it stood to cheer the performance. The evening was a wonderful example of our community supporting and encouraging our young people – those who will build the society that endures after my generation has departed. I hope our community will be just as strong in its support of our three student leaders.

We can be proud that our city has supported a major remodel and upgrade to our high school. We can continue to support improvements to our schools. We can recruit and hire quality administrators and embrace innovations in education. But the most important thing we can do as a community is to protect the rights of our students to study and learn in a free and open society.

In recent weeks, some of us so-called adults have forgotten these responsibilities. Three of our students, acting with intelligence, poise, resolve and integrity, have reminded us. Thank you Lily, Gaby and Morrigan.

Natalie West is a resident of South Portland and an attorney admitted to practice in California and Maine.

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