FIRE Starters: West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette


One of the most significant U.S. Supreme Court decisions in history is West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette. It’s the case that established that public school students have free speech rights at school. It involved two young elementary school sisters, Gathie and Marie Barnette. Their crime was refusing to salute the flag and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Gathie and Marie Barnette were Jehovah Witnesses, and they believed that saluting the flag and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance was akin to worshipping idols. Unfortunately for them, West Virginia had a state law that said a student could be kicked out of school and their parents could be fined and even sent to jail for 30 days if they did not salute the flag and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. You have to understand that this case occurred during the backdrop of World War II, a time of extreme, and at times, excessive patriotism. Three years earlier in Minersville School District v. Gobitis, the U.S. Supreme Court had upheld a similar Pennsylvania law, holding that religious liberty oftentimes must give way to political authority. Unfortunately the Gobitis decision unleashed a wave of violence perpetrated against Jehovah Witnesses. Depending on which historian you believe, between 2,000 and 4,000 incidents of violence occurred against Jehovah Witnesses. Fortunately the U.S. Supreme Court was looking for another case to reexamine the important constitutional issue, and that case was the Barnette decision. In that decision, writing for the Supreme Court majority, Justice Robert H. Jackson wrote, “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion …” of opinion …”
He also wrote that we must He also wrote that we must teach youth important constitutional freedoms, lest we strangle the free mind at its source and teach youth to discount important principles of government as mere platitudes. The Barnette decision is important in the First Amendment world for two fundamental reasons. First, it established a constitutional baseline that public school students have free speech rights at school. Secondly, the decision is important because it establishes the no compelled speech doctrine, that oftentimes, the government violates the First Amendment by compelling individuals to engage in certain expression.

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