Defamation / Reputation, Hate Speech, Political Expression
Awan v. Levant
Closed Contracts Expression
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The Supreme Court of the United States held that the Minersville School District’s decision to expel two students for refusing to salute the American flag and recite the Pledge of Allegiance did not violate their rights to freedom of speech, religion, or equal protection. Lillian and William Gobitis argued that their religious beliefs as Jehovah’s Witnesses exempted them from taking part and asked the court to overturn their expulsion on the basis of religious freedom. The Court found that the Board’s defense of the practices on the basis of “national cohesion” was a legitimate limit on the freedom of religion, though this decision would be overturned three years later in West Virginia State Bd. of Educ. v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624 (1943).
The Board of Education of Minersville, Pennsylvania required public school students to participate in the daily exercise of saluting the American flag. Two siblings were expelled from their school upon refusing to participate in the ceremony. The students were Jehovah’s Witnesses believing the Bible as the supreme authority. They also believed that their religion prohibited them from saluting the flag. After their expulsion, the students’ parents were forced to enroll them in a private school. As a result, the father brought a suit to enjoin the school from expelling his children for refusing to participate in the flag salute.
A U.S. district court in Pennsylvania enjoined the school district from expelling the students. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the ruling.
Since the decision ran counter to the Supreme Court’s prior dispositions on this issue, the Court granted certiorari to review the policy.
Justice Frankfurter, J., delivered the opinion of the Court. Recognizing the freedom of speech and religion under the First Amendment to the Constitution, the Court reaffirmed the basic principle that the government “may not interfere with organized or individual expression of belief or disbelief.” However, the Court agreed that the Constitution does not exclude laws of “general scope” that are not directly against religious beliefs. It stated that “[t]he mere possession of religious convictions which contradict the relevant concerns of a political society does not relieve the citizen from the discharge of political responsibilities.”
Specific to the case in hand, the Court was of the opinion that the the school’s mandate of saluting the American flag was a legitimate concern. It reasoned that the flag signifies “[the] government resting on the consent of the governed; liberty regulated by law; the protection of the weak against the strong; security against the exercise of arbitrary power; and absolute safety for free institutions against foreign aggression.” The Court indeed declined to independently judge the the wisdom behind the school’s policy. It concluded that the mandatory participation of students in saluting the American flag was a legitimate reason to limit the freedom of religion.
Consequently, the Supreme Court reversed the Circuit Court of Appeals’ injunction order against the Minersville School District.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
The decision limited the right to freedom of religion and expression because it held that compulsory measures towards national unity, such as mandatory participation of public school students in saluting the American flag, are constitutional, even if the requirements impinge on an individual’s religious beliefs.
Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.
Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.
The decision does not establish a binding precedent because it was overruled by the Supreme Court’s subsequent decision in West Virginia State Bd. of Educ. v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624 (1943).
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