Florida law guarantees the right to free speech by allowing students to refuse to participate in the traditional Pledge of Allegiance at the beginning of each school day, but that didn’t stop one school district from alerting the authorities to a school disruption caused when one Tampa suburb sixth-grader did exactly that. Student Lawton Chiles was subsequently arrested at Middle Academy for “causing a disruption” by saying the U.S. flag embodies racism by insulting African Americans.
When the sixth grader’s teacher asked why he didn’t move away if those were his beliefs (as if emigrating to another country is a perfectly normal decision that an eleven-year-old boy can legally make), he replied that “they brought me here.” Assumedly, he was referring to his parents.
When a police officer and school administrator repeatedly asked the student to exit the room and walk with them to the school office, the boy allegedly made threatening statements. According to school officials, they requested his cooperation more than twenty times.
According to public information Officer Gary Cross, Chiles was not arrested for refusing to say the Pledge of Allegiance, but instead for the disruption caused when he resisted an officer without violence (after they tried unsuccessfully to force him to say the Pledge of Allegiance).
The boy’s mother, Dhakira Talbot, refuses to acknowledge the charges against her son and demands they be swiftly dropped. Talbot implied the disruption was originally caused by her son’s teacher when she failed to handle the situation in an appropriate way.
The United States First Amendment guarantees that schools cannot require or force a student to stand or say the Pledge of Allegiance, a fact reinforced during a Supreme Court ruling as early as 1943.
This isn’t the first time the Supreme Court ruling has been ignored or violated. A Houston school required student India Landry to stand for the Pledge, but she refused and was then expelled. Her mother subsequently attained criminal defense counsel and filed a lawsuit against the school for violation of First Amendment rights, but precedent for her actions didn’t stop Texas Attorney General from continuing to resist the idea that the law was broken or that Landry’s rights were trampled.
An inevitable settlement between the plaintiff and defendant resulted in the Houston school acknowledging their students’ right to ignore the Pledge, but only if they have permission to do so from their parents.