American Atheists has won a significant legal victory on behalf of a teenager who said she was perpetually harassed by one of her high school teachers for refusing to say the Pledge of Allegiance.
At the time the original lawsuit was filed, in 2017, then-17-year-old Mari Leigh Oliver was a student at Klein Oak High School in Texas, and she decided she didn’t want to stand during the Pledge. Her teachers and her principals, completely ignoring the law that said she’s allowed to do that, constantly punished her for her decision. In some cases, when another student bullied her, they did nothing serious to put a stop to it.
The allegations in the lawsuit went just incredible in all the wrong ways.
As a freshman, Oliver was written up (a form of punishment) by her World Geography teacher for remaining seated. When she told the principal what happened, the principal defended the teacher by saying he was allowed to write her up “because of his military service.” That teacher was never disciplined. In fact, on another occasion, he temporarily took away Oliver’s phone because of her “lack of respect” for the Pledge. (The lawsuit also noted that he read Bible passages to the students on multiple occasions.)
The following year, in journalism class, Oliver’s teacher repeatedly told her to stand for the Pledge when she chose not to. That teacher even reported Oliver to her guidance counselor… who also told her to stand. Neither adult was ever disciplined for “singling [Oliver] out in class for peacefully and non-disruptively engaging in free speech.”
When Oliver was a junior, her protest resulted in a classmate standing up and calling her a “bitch.” That same student later posted pictures on Snapchat, including one with the caption, “Like if you don’t respect [our] country then get the fuck out of it[.]” Despite a forced apology in front of the principal, that same student later told another classmate (within earshot of Oliver), “There’s the bitch that sits for the Pledge.”
It didn’t get any better later that school year when Oliver was placed in the same sociology class as the bully. Trying to prevent another conflict, the principal removed Oliver from the class… essentially, punishing her for what the bully was doing.
That led Oliver’s mother LaShan Arceneaux to withdraw her from Klein Oak for a few months and pursue homeschooling instead, despite expenses eventually totaling more than $10,000.
Things didn’t improve during her senior year. Oliver came back to Klein Oak and was back in that sociology teacher’s classroom. The bully (presumably passing the class the year before) wasn’t there, but the teacher, Benjie Arnold, was apparently eager to take on that same role.
According to the original lawsuit, Arnold told students “that sitting for the Pledge was a privilege, not a right, and that people who sit for the Pledge are unappreciative and disrespectful, stating that all they do is take from society.” He also, on another occasion, “compared people who refuse to say the Pledge to Soviet communists, members of the Islamic faith seeking to impose Sharia law, and those who condone pedophilia.” He told students to transcribe the words of the Pledge as an assignment and gave Oliver a failing grade when she refused to play along.
At one point, Arnold played Christian music in the classroom and “stared at Oliver continuously as the
The story arc went from badgering, to bullying, to batshit crazy.
That’s when Oliver and her mother filed their lawsuit with the help of American Atheists. Over the course of the next few years, many of the claims against most of the defendants were dismissed, but the one against the sociology teacher, Benjie Arnold, remained.
The question at the moment involved whether Arnold could be sued for damages or whether qualified immunity shielded him from those potential consequences. Was the constitutional right he violated so clearly established that he could be held financially liable for his actions?
Arnold’s defense was that he’s immune. He said that (under Texas law) Oliver was required to say the Pledge (barring a written exemption from her mother, which is in dispute) and that forcing students to write the Pledge on paper was a general assignment and not a form of retaliation. In other words, he didn’t violate her constitutional rights, much less do so in such an egregious way so as to put himself at risk.
Yesterday, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the case can indeed move forward — dismissing Arnold’s attempt to have the whole thing tossed out. American Atheists hailed the step forward:
“No student should face harassment and retaliation for exercising her First Amendment rights,” said Geoffrey Blackwell. “We are pleased the court stood with free speech and reaffirmed just how outrageous the teacher’s actions were.”
“Mr. Arnold should have been teaching students about American freedom, not American intolerance,” said the student’s civil rights lawyer, Randall Kallinen, who is serving as local counsel in the case. “A student’s right to peaceful freedom of expression does not end at the schoolhouse steps.”
The case isn’t over yet, so stay tuned.
This case is also making news for another reasons. It was a 2-1 decision by the Fifth Circuit and the lone dissenter was Kyle Duncan, a judge nominated by Donald Trump, who is widely seen as one of his more insane right-wing selections (which is saying something). Duncan has previously made headlines for opposing same-sex marriage and purposely misgendering a trans person in his courtroom.
Duncan’s dissent in this case read more like a diatribe on Breitbart, referencing Dr. Seuss being “controversial,” acting like we live in a society where racism isn’t pervasive, and citing the work of anti-“Critical Race Theory” activist Christopher Rufo.
Trump Judge Kyle Duncan rants about Dr. Seuss and Ibram X. Kendi while *citing a Christopher Rufo blog post* in a petulant anti-woke dissent. What an embarrassing hack this guy is. https://t.co/FG1sr3yGci h/t @JoshABlock pic.twitter.com/LWAuDBGkzB
— Mark Joseph Stern (@mjs_DC) June 30, 2021
Anyway, this trial will move forward. There’s no guarantee Oliver will win her case, but the amount of evidence suggesting retaliation over her decision not to participate in the pointless Pledge ritual should be clear to anyone looking at it.
(Image via the BBC. Large portions of this article were published earlier. The piece has been edited to better characterize the nature of the lawsuit.)