The South Portland public schools have something to be proud of. Three leading students at the city’s high school have shown a deep understanding of constitutional principles, and displayed poise and confidence while standing up for their rights in the face of an ugly, uninformed backlash.

Too bad the same can’t be said about all the adults in the community. Many are revealing a surprising level of ignorance about bedrock American values, like freedom of speech and the separation of church and state. The students set a good example here, but too many adults have failed to follow it.

Here is the story: As senior class president, Lily SanGiovanni has the responsibility each morning of getting on the intercom to read announcements and lead the school in the Pledge of Allegiance. SanGiovanni says she felt uncomfortable making students of different faiths (or no faith) repeat the words “one nation under God” in a public school. Gaby Ferrell and Morrigan Turner, who are also school government leaders, shared her concern and tried to address the matter.

PLEDGE VOLUNTARY

They felt that it had not been made clear to students that saying the pledge is voluntary, so they proposed adding the words “if you’d like to” to the invitation to rise and recite the pledge. After getting shut down by a faculty committee, SanGiovanni started adding the words herself last month.

Those four little words created an uproar. Principal Ryan Caron asked SanGiovanni to stop saying them or to let another student make the morning announcements.

He said that members of the faculty complained. People far from South Portland weighed in on social media. Some posted harsh criticisms of the students, and ugly anti-immigrant rhetoric.

The critics accused the young women of being un-American. But it was the critics themselves who were trashing constitutional freedoms. Throughout this episode, the students were right, and the adults were wrong.

The U.S. Supreme Court weighed in on this issue in 1943, in the middle of World War II. Writing for the court, Justice Robert Jackson, who later acted as prosecutor in the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals, said that the Constitution prohibited the government from forcing any American to say anything.

“If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein,” he wrote.

STUDENTS UNDERSTOOD

The students in South Portland rightly understood that the freedom of speech is also the freedom to be silent. And they knew that the first amendment also prohibits the establishment of a state religion. Public school officials are not permitted to force children to repeat a prayer, such as the words “one nation under God,” no matter how innocuous it seems.

Somehow, the school administration missed this opportunity to make sure all the high school’s students had the same sophisticated understanding of the rights and responsibilities of citizenship in a free society that was displayed by these three leaders.

Instead of asking SanGiovanni to stop, the principal should have used the opportunity to tell the entire school community – and the community outside the walls – that pledging allegiance doesn’t mean anything if it’s not voluntary.

He should have told everyone that the rights to speak and believe freely are among the most cherished values that are symbolized by the flag.

He missed his chance. Fortunately, his students did not. They knew when to stand up and do the right thing, and the whole community can be proud.