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What, students have rights? Not until 1943
(West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette)

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Quick Tip27: Student First Amendment rights

by Jan Ewell
Before the Barnette decision, when students came into conflict with public schools, the courts decided their cases—often against the students—without mentioning students’ right. They considered if the punishment was excessive (beating with a rawhide strap was okay in 1859). They also debated if it was the parents’ right or the schools’ right to discipline the students. The First Amendment was never mentioned.

Gathie and Marie Barnett* were attending Slip Hill Grade School in Charleston, West Virginia, when America entered World War II in December, 1941. The school district installed flags in classrooms (replacing pictures of flags) and required all students to salute the flag. The West Virginia State Board of Education passed rules in January 1942 requiring the flag salute and a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, which Congress would formally adopt June, 1942.

The Barnett family, as Jehovah’s Witnesses, felt the practice of saluting the flag was a form of idolatry and would be a violation of their religion. As Gathie said some 60 years after the case, “We were taught that bowing down to the flag, saluting it, was like a bowing down and giving reverence to it—it was like an idol. So we believe definitely not to worship idols.”

If there is a fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official high or petty shall prescribe what shall be orthodox in matters of politics, nationalism, religion or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by work or acts their faith therein.”––Justice Robert H. Jackson

The Supreme Court released its decision in the students’ favor on Flag Day, June 14, 1943.

The decision: Justice Robert H. Jackson wrote these memorable words in favor of students’ rights: “If there is a fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official high or petty shall prescribe what shall be orthodox in matters of politics, nationalism, religion or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by work or acts their faith therein.”

Though the Supreme Court did not specifically address student press rights until 1988, the Barnette case is essential to student journalists. It limits the government’s ability to restrict religion, the first freedom in the Bill of Rights. It found public schools are the government. It established that students as young as elementary school are protected by the First Amendment .

Justice Jackson wrote, “That we 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.

*A court clerk misspelled their name as Barnette

Resources:

West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette

West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette

West Virginia State Board of Ed. v. Barnette

Related issues and cases:

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