SOUTH PORTLAND — It’s a story about three top students at South Portland High School, four little words added to the daily invitation to say the Pledge of Allegiance, and a provocative Facebook post that provided an unexpected lesson in the politics of the freedom of speech.

Senior class president Lily SanGiovanni sparked community outrage in January when she changed the way she invited students and faculty members to recite the pledge.

“At this time,” SanGiovanni said over the intercom, “would you please rise and join me for the Pledge of Allegiance if you’d like to.”

It was the latest salvo in a monthslong effort by SanGiovanni and some of her friends to make it clear that reciting the pledge is optional under state and federal law, so students cannot be forced to stand and say it every morning. Although no students have filed formal complaints in recent years, SanGiovanni and her friends said they and other students have felt uncomfortable or pressured by their teachers to say it.

The addition of “if you’d like to” inflamed simmering opposition from staff members who had been wrestling with the pledge issue since June. It also triggered an emotional, anti-immigrant backlash in the community and left SanGiovanni and her friends searching for a way to carry their cause forward.

“The reference to ‘under God’ makes us uncomfortable because it’s a public school,” SanGiovanni said. “It has nothing to do with our patriotism. We really want to enlighten our students. We believe they should be learning what the pledge actually means and choosing (whether) to say it.”

Supporting SanGiovanni’s campaign are two other top seniors, Gaby Ferrell and Morrigan Turner, who lead the student senate and are the student representatives on the South Portland School Board. All three teens belong to the high school’s Civil Rights Team and believe that students who have different religious or political beliefs shouldn’t feel compelled to say the pledge.

COMPLAINTS FROM THE COMMUNITY

SanGiovanni first delivered the altered pledge invitation on Jan. 5. She and her friends heard positive feedback from some students and teachers, but they were aware that other students and teachers thought it was disrespectful, she said. SanGiovanni continued with the four-word addition for a couple of weeks before news of the change spread to the wider community.

By Jan. 15, a Facebook post by a local businessman was drawing a flurry of anti-immigrant, anti-welfare, pro-veteran comments from people who assumed that the students behind the change were immigrants. South Portland High’s 900 students include immigrants and the children of immigrants from countries across the globe.

“So much for the All American city,” wrote Rob Soucy of Port Harbor Marine. “Standing for the Pledge of Allegiance is OPTIONAL for students at South Portland High School. So, let me get this straight, we just spent $47 million of taxpayer money on a Taj Mahal school renovation and the kids (of families that probably don’t have to pay taxes to begin with) can’t be forced to stand for 30 freaking seconds to honor the symbol of the country they live in and off! Are you kidding me?”

Soucy’s post was “liked” by 69 people, shared 11 times and commented on by about 40 “friends,” including folks who live outside South Portland.

“I say (send) them back where (they) came from – they must like war better than freedom,” wrote one commenter.

“This is disgusting and very discouraging for the next generation and good parents like yourselves. Something has got to change,” wrote another.

Soucy declined to comment for this story.

GIRLS STUNNED AT TURN OF EVENTS

On Jan. 20, Principal Ryan Caron asked SanGiovanni to stop saying “if you’d like to,” or pass the privilege of leading the pledge to another student. Caron often attends meetings during morning announcements, so he had been unaware of the change, he said. He learned about it from teachers.

“They were upset,” Caron said. “They were questioning whether I gave the girls permission to go around (a prior) decision of the (faculty) leadership team.”

He also received a few emails from community members. And he saw Soucy’s Facebook post.

“That was pretty upsetting,” Caron said. “It was upsetting to me and it was upsetting to the girls.”

SanGiovanni complied with Caron’s request because she was concerned that people thought the principal was “in cahoots” with her efforts. Still, she and her friends were stunned that their campaign to inform students of their legal rights was trumped by political pressure from uninformed community members.

“That’s what upset us the most,” SanGiovanni said. “Those people with their racist, hateful views have more power than us, and this school is here for us.”

SanGiovanni said it’s ironic that community members assumed that the students behind the change were immigrants, “especially since we’re three privileged white girls.” SanGiovanni plans to study biology and neurosience at Wesleyan University, Ferrell plans to study sociology at Barnard College and Turner plans to study earth science at Vassar College.

THE PLEDGE, THE FLAG AND THE LAW

Students have protested saying the pledge in school for decades. California school officials apologized last fall after a student who was an atheist reported that a teacher compelled him to say the pledge. The Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled last spring that reciting the words “under God” in the pledge doesn’t discriminate against non-religious students who hear it.

Under a Maine law passed in 2011, public schools must allow every student “the opportunity to recite the Pledge of Allegiance at some point during a school day in which students are required to attend,” but they cannot require students to say the pledge.

A 1985 Maine law stipulates that educators shall “impress upon the youth by suitable references and observances the significance of the flag, to teach them the cost, the object and principles of our government, the inestimable sacrifices made by the founders of our nation, the important contribution made by all who have served in the armed services of our country since its inception, and to teach them to love, honor and respect the flag of our country that costs so much and is so dear to every true American citizen.”

PLEDGE REVIVED AFTER 2001 ATTACKS

South Portland High hadn’t been saying the pledge each morning, but resumed the practice on Sept. 12, 2001, the day after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, SanGiovanni said.

SanGiovanni, who has been class president for four years, assumed the duties of saying the morning announcements and leading the pledge last June, after the class of 2014 graduated. She and her friends had discussed how she would handle the pledge, so when the moment arrived, she asked for a moment of silence when students could stand and say the pledge.

A secretary in the principal’s office grabbed the microphone and recited the pledge that morning and for the rest of the school year, SanGiovanni said. Principal Caron advised her that if she wanted to change the way the pledge was said, she’d have to make a formal presentation to the faculty leadership team, which consists of 12 department heads.

FACULTY TEAM REJECTS PROPOSAL

When the new school year started in September, SanGiovanni began each morning with a traditional invitation to join her in saying the pledge. On Sept. 11, she and her friends delivered a digital presentation to the leadership team, asking to replace the pledge with a moment of silence during the announcements, when students would be allowed to say the pledge in their classrooms.

A month later, the leadership team voted 11-1 to reject SanGiovanni’s proposal.

“I thought they did a nice job,” Caron said. “The team thought there wasn’t a need to change the process. Some faculty members felt they needed more information. They weren’t sure there was a large group of students who felt they were being pressured into saying it.”

Moreover, Caron said, “some faculty members see this not as students trying to make a change for the betterment of the school community,” but rather “the cause of a very few students who are protesting the pledge itself.”

SanGiovanni said the leadership team never formally notified her of its decision, so she and her friends decided to add “if you’d like to” in January.

DOOR TO CHANGE STILL OPEN

Amid the controversy, Caron said, he has reminded faculty members of the laws related to the pledge and warned them against intimidating or compelling students to say it.

Caron acknowledged that, as a former social studies teacher, he can “relate to a student having a cause and being motivated to make positive change.” He also noted that many staff members had no issue with adding the words “if you’d like to.”

He has advised SanGiovanni and her friends that they could seek broader student support for their cause, gather signatures on a petition and submit a new proposal to the faculty leadership committee, he said.

FREEDOM NOT TO SAY THE PLEDGE

SanGiovanni and her friends aren’t sure what their next steps will be. They see a need for a written policy, but their experience with the emotional and complicated responses to reciting the pledge has been overwhelming. Some staff members have sat them down and told them long stories about loved ones who died in battle and other reasons why they love the flag.

“It’s hard because every time it’s brought up, everyone’s opinion gets brought up,” Gaby Ferrell said. “Some people also don’t want it to be known that it’s an option, because they don’t want it to be optional.”

Ultimately, the young women want students and faculty members to understand that the liberty espoused in the pledge includes the freedom not to say it.

“We respect that some people want to say the pledge, but some people don’t,” said Morrigan Turner. “We’ve felt forced to have to say it, and we don’t want others to feel that.”