Some children of Jehovah's Witnesses had been expelled from school because they would not salute the flag (the Old Testament forbids bowing to any "image"). In 1943, Justice Robert Jackson, speaking for a majority of the Supreme Court, returned the children to school. They were to be coerced no longer, for "compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard."
Jackson also emphasized that the essence of a free society is the freedom to differ, and this freedom "is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order."
There has seldom been a more clear and forceful definition of what it is to be an American, but the news of this case, West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnett, never got to Randolph, Mass. Well, it did reach one student, 17-year-old Susan Shapiro, and that knowledge has made her a pariah in Randolph and in its high school.
Soon after the start of the school year, Susan decided not to stand during the playing of "The Star-Spangled Banner" and the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag. But her homeroom teacher, Jean Noblin, ordered her to rise, and the student did. The next day, however, Susan Shapiro returned with a Department of Education handbook on student rights. Cases after 1943 had established that no student, religious or not, can be forced to take part in a ceremony of loyalty, and no silent student can be compelled to stand during such a ceremony. It was all in the book. The homeroom teacher did not congratulate Susan on her diligent research. Rather, Noblin likened the student's attitude to spitting on the flag, and asked Susan Shapiro how she would feel if someone spat on the Star of David. Susan was then sent down to the principal's office, and that educator allowed as how the student was within her rights to be a heretic.
Unlike those students of the 1960s who stiff-armed the Pledge of Allegiance and the national anthem, Susan is not an ideologue. When I talked with her, she expressed no disdain for this administration's policies in Central America or South Africa, nor any anger at its covert war against the poor at home. She had been thinking for some time, she told me, that it did not make sense to have to stand for a symbol. After all, "Boys go to war to protect the people, not the flag. It's the people who mean everything." Susan paused. "I love America. Does anyone know that?"
Susan kept sitting during the loyalty rites, but the story of her confrontation with Noblin finally broke in the Quincy Patriot Ledger. The faculty and most of the people in town rallied protectively round Noblin as television crews and print reporters from outside came to see what was happening. And the great majority of the high school students made it clear to Susan that, as one of her classmates said, she had made a big deal and a lot of trouble out of nothing. Some accented their strong feelings by bringing small American flags to class. A number of students told Susan they were going to beat her up, and the Community Relations Division of the Justice Department arranged protection for her in school. Meanwhile at home, Susan and her parents were receiving bountiful evidence, in calls and letters, that anti-Semitism is a hardier plant than cactus ("Too bad you weren't put in the ovens.").
Adding a bright patriotic touch to Susan's continuing education, Gerald Rumbos, commander of Randolph's Veterans of Foreign Wars Chapter, told the Patriot Ledger: "You can do anything you want in this country, but if you don't stand up for the flag, you don't belong in this country." And te celebrated compassionate psychiatrist, Dr. Robert Coles, was quoted by The Boston Globe as calling Susan's attitude in this matter "arrogant self-centeredness."
The Massachusetts Civil Liberties Union, however, stood by her, as did the Scarlet Pimpernel of the First Amendment, Harvard Law School Professor Alan Dershowitz. He defended Susan in every forum available. What particularly disturbs Dershowitz is that the students and faculty at Randolph High clearly need a lot of remedial work in American studies (notably the Bill of Rights). Accordingly, he was saddened when school authorities rejected an offer by him to hold an assembly at the high school on what makes America different from so many other countries.
Meanwhile, in the darkness behind the Shapiro's home late one night, a group of teen-agers sardonically serenaded the family with the "Star Spangled Banner."