Days after Donald Trump urged the owners of professional sports teams to fire any player who protests during the recitation of the national anthem, public schools in at least one state have issued statements threatening to punish any student who protests against racism and police brutality at school-sanctioned sporting events.
In Bossier Parish, school Superintendent Scott Smith issued a statement on Wednesday morning warning students that coaches and principals are given sole discretion to administer punishment to any player who chooses not to stand during the national anthem.
“It is a choice for students to participate in extracurricular activities, not a right, and we at Bossier Schools feel strongly that our teams and organizations should stand in unity to honor our nation’s military and veterans,” Smith wrote.
At least one school official told the Shreveport Times that potential punishments could range from a one-game suspension to actual corporal punishment, forcing players to run extra laps if he or she chooses to kneel or otherwise protest during the national anthem.
On Thursday, journalist Shawn King tweeted a photo purportedly showing a letter written by the principal of Parkway High School, located in Bossier Parish. In it, principal Waylon Bates writes that “Parkway High School requires student athletes to stand in a respectful manner throughout the National Anthem during any sporting event in which their team is participating. Failure to comply will result in loss of playing time and/or participation as directed by the head coach and principal. Continued failure to comply will result in removal from the team.”
Handing down punishments for public school students who choose not to stand during the national anthem is—like all prohibitions limiting free speech—unconstitutional. In West Virginia v. Barnette, a 1943 case regarding a requirement that students stand during the Pledge of Allegiance, the Supreme Court ruled 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.”
Bossier Parish’s directive follows the re-issuance this week of a 2016 statement by the statewide Louisiana High School Athletic Association in which it abdicated any decision making on protests to individual schools and districts.
“Any/all decisions related to individual(s), and/or team(s) expression(s) exhibited during any pre-event National Anthem at a LHSAA regular season and/or post season game, match, meet or contest, will be determined by each individual member school and/or member school’s school district,” wrote LHSAA Executive Director Eddie Bonine.
Elsewhere in Louisiana, some districts are taking a far more measured approach. In neighboring Caddo Parish, football players at Green Oaks Performing Arts Academy announced their intention to stand with arms locked during the national anthem before their game on Friday. They play on the road at Plain Dealing High School, located in Bossier Parish.
Though they’re only separated by the narrow Red River, Caddo and Bossier Parishes do have some notable distinctions. With over 250,000 residents as of the latest census, Caddo is twice as big as Bossier. One more thing: Forty percent of Caddo’s population is black. In Bossier, that number is less than 19 percent.