Southwest Florida students reacted Friday at area football games to a Collier principal’s recent order that students at his high school must stand for the national anthem, with some supporting the move that First Amendment lawyers say violates free speech rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court.
“I agree with it because you never really know what you’re thankful for until it’s taken away and you realize it’s taken for granted,” said Barron Collier High School junior Logan Netzow, who was attending Friday night’s game against Lehigh High School.
The comments came a week after Lely High School Principal Ryan Nemeth told students during morning announcements they must stand during the national anthem at school events or face being kicked out of the event.
“When that anthem is being played, you are to stand and you are to be quiet,” Nemeth said.
By ordering students to stand, Nemeth went against Supreme Court rulings that have upheld the rights of students to protest during patriotic displays, like the anthem or the Pledge of Allegiance, First Amendment lawyers have said. The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida contacted the Collier school system after Nemeth’s comments to object, saying the principal overstepped his authority.
The issue of athletes not standing during the national anthem was sparked by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s protest against standing during the anthem at his football games.
There were no incidents of protest reported Friday at local football games, including Lely’s game against Dunbar High School.
Lely sophomore John Liberal said he understands if Nemeth believes there should be a policy for students.
“Those guys (NFL players) have the right to do it, guys making millions of dollars. But we’re on school property, so if they make a policy, we follow it,” Liberal said, adding he also understands if some students choose to protest. “I don’t have a problem standing for (the anthem) but for some people, they might have a problem or don’t believe in it, and they have that right. It’s a free country. Personally, there’s a lot of veterans in the crowd and I think you should honor those guys.”
Other students said they believe there should be room for respectful protest.
“Some people, it might be against their religion, so I don’t think they should be punished for it,” Lely freshman Willie Gourdet said. “People should be able to do what they want to do, no matter what. Me, I don’t have a problem standing for it, it’s my country.”
Gulf Coast High School sophomore Tristen Stonebraker, who attended that school’s game against Naples High School, said students should be required to stand. Anything else would be disrespectful to his father, Stonebraker said, who has been in the U.S. Army for 20 years and deployed three times.
“I believe they should pay their respects to those who are fighting for their free will,” the Gulf Coast student said.
Estero High School freshman Paige Carroll, attending the game against Palmetto Ridge High School, agreed.
“It’s only respectful to stand. You stand in order to honor who you are, and you stand to honor your country,” Carroll said.
Collier school spokesman Greg Turchetta said Nemeth’s statement that students must stand was prompted by students who were loud during the anthem at a recent volleyball game. In a statement, Collier school leaders said students must have a note from their parents if they want to sit out the anthem.
Ken Paulson, the president of the First Amendment Center at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., said a student who doesn’t have a note from their parents shouldn’t be forced to stand for the anthem.
“An individual student is exercising his or her constitutional rights by refusing to stand for the national anthem, and that doesn’t require approval from mom or dad,” he said. “That’s just wrong. Seventeen-year-olds are citizens too.”
Florida law, however, requires that “each student shall be informed by posting a notice in a conspicuous place that the student has the right not to participate in reciting the pledge. Upon written request by his or her parent, the student must be excused from reciting the pledge.”
Whether a student is being disruptive and impeding learning determines when school leaders can intervene to enforce discipline, Paulson said.
“If a student wears a T-shirt containing a threatening slogan, the school administration can ask the student to change if there’s a likelihood of disruption to the educational process,” he said. “But there has to be a strong likelihood, not something fanciful.”
Patrick Vaughn, the general counsel for the American Family Association, a conservative Christian organization, said the same goes for cursing in class.
“If you permitted cursing it would prevent civil discourse, which is something we’re trying to teach in schools,” he said.
The rules also apply to religion. Under the First Amendment, students are allowed to speak freely about religion in school and even proselytize, unless they’re interrupting class and distracting other students. Teachers, on the other hand, can only provide instruction about religion from an educational perspective, Vaughn said.
“The big question is who’s a state actor,” he said. “All public school employees are state actors. Students are individual actors.”
This is why, Vaughn said, students may lead prayers and form religious clubs. “But if, say, faculty bring in a reverend to lead a prayer at a football game, then you’ve got government employees engineering a worshiping activity.”
Paulson said this is also why public schools can’t demand students to stand for the national anthem. “In effect, that would mean the government is telling students, ‘Stand and salute us,’ and that’s a very scary place to be,” he said.
Staff writers Adam Fisher, Dana Caldwell and Andew Sodergren contributed to this report.