Efforts by High Schools to Forbid #TakeaKnee Called 'Patently Unconstitutional'

As support soars for professional athletes protesting racial injustice by taking a knee or raising a fist during the national anthem, a Louisiana public school district is being lambasted for threatening to punish students who protest at its sports games.

“Schools should respect students who embrace their constitutional rights and stand up to injustice—not punish them.”
—Marjorie Esman, ACLU of LouisianaIn a statement released Wednesday, Bossier Parish school board superintendent Scott Smith confirmed that administrators of the 34 schools in his district had been encouraged to require members of teams and organizations to “stand in solidarity when the national anthem is played at sporting events.”

Smith’s statement, which emphasized that school principals and coaching staffs “have sole discretion in determining consequences” for student protesters, was followed by a viral letter that the principal of one of the district’s seven high schools sent to student athletes and parents on Thursday.

Journalist and activist Shaun King initally tweeted a photo of the letter, and drew a connection between the high school’s move and President Donald Trump’s crude calls for NFL owners to fire anyone who protests on the field.

“Parkway High School requires student athletes to stand in a respectful manner throughout the national anthem during any sporting event in which their team is participating,” wrote Parkway High School principal Waylon Bates. “Failure to comply will result in loss of playing time and/or participation as directed by the head coach and principal. Continued failure to comply will result in removal from the team.”

Denouncing the threat as “patently unconstitutional” and “antithetical to our values as Americans,” Marjorie Esman, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana, said “schools should respect students who embrace their constitutional rights and stand up to injustice—not punish them.”


Citing a Supreme Court ruling from nearly 75 years ago that established public schools “have no business forcing students to stand for patriotic rituals” and that it is part of the job of public school administrators “to train students for participation in our free society,” Esman concluded that “schools have no valid interest in turning their students into mouthpieces of government speech, full stop.”

Steven Mazie, a politics professor in New York City and the Supreme Court correspondent for The Economist, called the prinicipal’s move “a clear violation of the First Amendment,” and outlined in a piece published Friday the series of cases that have established the students’ rights to protest.

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law has already sent a letter to the Bossier Parish superintendent demanding that the district immediately rescind the Parkway principal’s memo by the end of the day on Friday. If the administrators refuse, legal action from one or more legal advocacy group seems likely.

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Even so, the Louisiana district is not alone in its mandate that students stand for the anthem.

The Diocese of Rockville Centre on Long Island recently warned students at its three high schools that standing during “The Star-Spangled Banner” is a “long-standing school policy” and “failure to abide by this policy may result in serious disciplinary action.”

Similarly, a football coach at a Tennesee high school said to reporters earlier this week: “We are not giving our kids the option to kneel.” 

This post has been updated to include action from the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

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