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Do High School Students Legally Have To Say The Pledge Of Allegiance?

What are your rights? MTV News asked the experts.

For some, it's a proud American tradition. For others, it's an uncomfortable ritual. However you feel about the Pledge of Allegiance, there's an important question: Is it a voluntary expression or can your school force you to say it?

Earlier this month, a Pennsylvania middle school made headlines nationwide when a nurse allegedly refused to treat an eighth grade student who refused to recite the Pledge. While the details of this particular incident are still under internal investigation, the controversy resurfaces larger questions: Are students obligated by law to participate? Can they be punished if they opt out?

For answers, we spoke with American Civil Liberties Union attorney Lee Rowland. "I literally never get to give an answer [this] unequivocal," she said. "This is not an open question, it's not a right that's in flux -- this is a 72-year-old truism: Students do not have to recite the Pledge."

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This goes back to a U.S. Supreme Court case from 1943, West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette. The justices ruled that legally, no student in a public school had to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance, and that forcing someone to recite it is a violation of the First Amendment and the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

But even though that's the law of the land, it may not reflect the reality in schools.

"Unfortunately, 1943 was far from the last year in which a school punished a student for failing to recite the Pledge," said Rowland.

Despite the concrete, decades-old ruling, some schools have continued to coerce students into saying the Pledge. Daniel Perlman, an attorney based in Los Angeles, told us about a case in the L.A. area just this past October.

"A freshman student was required at Oak Park High School in Ventura county to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, despite not wanting to," Perlman said. "His teacher intimidated him and the school later apologized after receiving a letter from the American Humanist Association."

If you're a student who chooses to opt of reciting the Pledge, and your school tries to punish you or force you into participating, Rowland has a couple of tips.

"The first step is knowing your rights," she said. "Those students should have the confidence of [their] convictions. They have every right, protected under the Constitution, not to say the Pledge. Those kids could march right into the principal's office and say, 'It's my understanding the Supreme Court gave me the right to opt out 72 years ago -- why haven't you guys gotten the memo yet?'"

She also encourages students to reach out to your local ACLU affiliate. "This is the kind of issue that fortunately doesn't take a lawsuit to resolve," she said. "The law is so clearly established that, frequently, a letter from an attorney or even a concerned parent or citizen within the community is likely to resonate with school officials once it gets into the hands of someone who clearly knows the school's in hot water if they're engaging in that kind of behavior."

Freedom of speech ... hey, isn't that why we love this country so much?

What are your thoughts about saying the Pledge? Let us know in the comments below.