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May 14, 2018

ACLU Defends Free Speech Rights of Baltimore County Student Reprimanded for "Taking a Knee" During Pledge

Family Seeks to Clarify County Rules to Support Silent Protest 

CATONSVILLE, MD - Standing up for the First Amendment right of students to silent and respectful protest during patriotic exercises, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Maryland is challenging treatment of a Catonsville Middle School sixth-grader inspired by football player Colin Kaepernick to "take a knee" during the Pledge of Allegiance. The ACLU wrote to Baltimore County School (BCPS) officials about the incident, asking the Superintendent and School Board to clarify BCPS policy on student rights to dissent, to ensure that school officials understand and honor this well-established right.

"I decided to kneel because there is a lot of things I really don't agree with in the country happening - racism, sexism and the person in the White House, particularly the wall - it's not ok," said 11-year-old Mariana Taylor. "I feel like it's important to stand up for what I believe in and I want to inspire other people to do it too."

In February, Mariana Taylor silently and respectfully knelt adjacent to her desk when the Pledge of Allegiance was recited during her morning homeroom class. She was confronted by her teacher, who told Mariana that the "rules" require that she must stand for the Pledge. After the teacher reprimanded her for being disrespectful and inappropriately sought to talk her out of kneeling, Mariana left the classroom in tears at the end of the period. Her next teacher noticed Mariana's emotional state and suggested she see her guidance counselor.

After getting a call from Mariana, her mother, Joanne Taylor, immediately went to the school to meet with the counselor and teacher. While the guidance counselor supported Mariana, the teacher pushed for Mariana to make a presentation to the class explaining herself. After further discussion, Ms. Taylor was willing to entertain an option of a classroom meeting, given the teacher's account of what happened.

After later hearing from Mariana, as well as the mother of another student present, that there were factual inaccuracies in the teacher's account of what happened, Joanne reached out to the principal with her concerns. It quickly became clear that the school system's policies were confusing about whether students were allowed to silently kneel or even to sit quietly during the Pledge. The Principal himself told Joanne that the policy was old and likely needed to be updated.

"The Supreme Court has been very clear that students do not lose their First Amendment rights when they enter the schoolhouse door," said Jay Jimenez, Legal Associate for the ACLU of Maryland. "The ACLU urges Baltimore County and all Maryland schools to review and update their policies to honor respectful student activism in the future, like silently ‘taking a knee' during the Pledge of Allegiance."

The ACLU is urging BCPS officials to ensure that the proposed new Rule 6307 is clear that the First Amendment rights of students wishing to symbolically express concerns during the Pledge, such as quietly "take a knee," are clearly protected. The ACLU also urged BCPS officials to work with the Taylor family in their effort to use Mariana's experience as an opportunity to review, reconsider, and improve BCPS policies on student dissent, and to educate students, teachers and administrators about Constitutional protections for freedom of speech.