The Mommy Vortex: The Littlest Patriots
Almost every day of my life as a young student, I remember saluting the American flag by saying the Pledge of Allegiance in school. In recent years, more and more people have objected to the Pledge being said in classrooms, and, aptly, our First Amendment rights give us the freedom not to speak it, should we so choose. While I’ve never fully agreed with disrespecting the very symbol of the freedom of speech, I do understand that right from a strictly legal perspective.
But when a New York City public elementary school principal banned a patriotic song (“Proud to be an American,” by Lee Greenwood) at a recent Kindergarten graduation, my first reaction was anger. I kept thinking to myself, if I had been a parent at that school, I would have certainly exercised my rights under the First Amendment and said my piece. What angered me the most, initially, was the principal’s conflicting and confusing reasons for her decision.
First, the principal said that singing the song was “offensive to other cultures,” which, even if that’s the case, doesn’t adequately buttress the argument that not singing the patriotic song is offensive to some, as well. After public outrage erupted across the City, the principal changed her tact, and stated that the song was actually too “grown up” for Kindergarten students; yet, she said she would still allow the Justin Bieber song “Baby” to be sung by these five and six year olds. When the principal was then questioned about the mature Bieber lyrics, and her seemingly conflicting standards on what is considered mature, she took that song out of the program, too.
It was all very confusing for me to understand as an adult; I can’t even imagine what the parents of those young students said to their children.
For days, I couldn’t put my finger on what was continuing to bother me so much about this story. Yes, the kids were given a contradictory message about age-appropriate music. Yes, it seemed unsubstantiated that other cultures choosing to live in America would be upset by a patriotic song. But what was the real issue here? What was everyone really upset about?
I think, at the end of the day, that the parents (and most of the public at large) didn’t want the kids to be censured—they wanted their kids to have the freedom to sing a patriotic song without a government official telling them they were not allowed to. This was not “hate speech;” it was not yelling “fire” in a crowded theater. It was a patriotic song. And so, at some very basic level, the parents and the general public felt their liberty being restrained, and their free speech restricted. So much so, that several protests followed in the days ahead, consisting of flag waving children and adults belting out patriotic songs in front of the principal’s school. At some visceral level, the public needed to exercise their free speech. They wanted to be heard.
What I find difficult as a parent to explain to my children, more specifically my son who is older and more aware of these issues, is how freedom of speech means sometimes allowing other people to do and say things that you do not agree with, like watching them sing a patriotic song or, conversely, burn an American flag.
The latter is not something I personally advocate; my veteran and military-serving family revere this symbol of our freedom. But it is an expression and an extension of that freedom of speech. In an unanticipated (and arguably unintended) twist, the principal’s decision to censure a patriotic song reminded the students, their parents, and the general public how valuable the liberty of free speech really is. The moment that liberty is restrained or removed, its precious value increases ten-fold. And this is the lesson that I ultimately highlighted for my son.
I read dozens of opinions about the principal’s decision, and I respected those that agreed with the principal’s latter explanation for her decision, based on the song’s lyrics being too mature for the Kindergarten set. As a parent, I watched my three-year-old sing the same song at her nursery school, and I had no problem with it at all. But part of engaging in free speech is being respectful and tolerant of others’ opinions, even if we disagree with them. It doesn’t mean, though, that we should stop people from speaking (or singing) at all.
I do think, in retrospect, that the principal should have been more careful about upholding the First Amendment, especially as a government employee. As we celebrate the Fourth of July this week, I will remind my children how lucky they are to have so many liberties that others around the world do not have. I will remind them to thank the soldiers who shed their blood for those freedoms. And I will remind them that they have the freedom to wave our flag and sing about how proud they are to be Americans, even if they are too young to fully understand how valuable that liberty is. After all, they will be adults one day, too.
Rosemarie Coppola-Baldwin is a practicing attorney and a dedicated mother of two children. A Georgetown University graduate, Rosemarie has practiced law at a major New York City law firm and for the City of New York. Rosemarie has been a guest lecturer on women’s civil rights and related legal issues at St. John’s University (New York), and offers pro bono legal services to a variety of entities.