Editor's note: This contribution by the late journalist I.F. Stone first appeared in our January 1975 magazine.
The Pledge of Allegiance is creating an uproar in a high school in southern Wisconsin. Not the Pledge itself, but the language it’s recited in.
For many years now, Edgerton High School in Wisconsin has allowed students in its Spanish class to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in Spanish over the Intercom one day of the school year. It also invites foreign exchange students (the school now has three) to say it in their own language.
This year, when Spanish students recited the Pledge on March 11, it caused a ruckus.
Parents complained. They demanded that the Spanish teacher, the principal, and the superintendent be fired. And they intend to press the issue at the school board meeting on April 28.
The superintendent, Dr. Norman Fjelstad, has even been physically threatened.
“There were a couple of people who made threats,” he said. “I said, ‘It’s a felony to threaten me,’ and they apologized. Once they got set back on their heels, we had a good discussion. It’s the people who leave the messages on my phone—it’s like shooting you in the back. I don’t even know who they are.”
Fjelstad has been superintendent for 20 years. The current controversy has taken a toll.
“It’s not been fun,” he says. “When I went to vote I was confronted. When I went to the grocery store, I was confronted. I get about five phone calls a day. They want me removed from my position unless I’m willing to put in writing that this will never happen again. And I won’t do that. We don’t allow bullying in our schools, and I won’t be bullied by this.”
Fjelstad realized he had a problem on his hands when the phones started ringing at the administration building on March 12.
The following day, the Janesville Gazette ran a story entitled “Spanish Pledge Angers Veteran.”
It quoted Todd Dix, whose son goes to the high school.
“This is America; we speak English,” said Dix, who retired from the National Guard last year. “I don’t want any of my three boys coming home saying, ‘Dad, we did the Pledge of Allegiance in Spanish.’ ”
His son Kyle told the paper that he thought it was disrespectful to the troops.
The article in the newspaper sparked some heated exchanges on the paper’s website, so much so that the editor, Scott Angus, decided to yank the debate.
“It started out fairly high brow,” Angus said, “but then it got to be a racist thing.”
One said: “I go to Edgerton High School and I don’t appreciate Mexicans saying the Pledge in Spanish. . . . If you think Mexicans can waltz right in this school and have an influence on these American students, then you’re wrong. This is America, home of the free and not the illegal.”
“I’ve heard their frustration,” says Superintendent Fjelstad. “I understand what they’re saying. They feel it dishonors our troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. My response is this: I know there are 400 Hispanic speaking soldiers that won’t disagree with them. They can’t disagree because they gave their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, there are 110,000 Spanish-speaking Hispanics serving in the military that I believe would agree with me that speaking Spanish does not dishonor the military.”
Fjelstad also points out that George W. Bush had the National Anthem sung in Spanish at his inaugural in 2001.
Fjelstad adds a personal point. “I have a Norwegian heritage,” he says. “My father could not speak English until the third grade, and he was patriotic, and he recited the Pledge in Norwegian.”
Fjelstand also notes that “our Wisconsin Constitution was written in three languages: English, German, and Norwegian. The reason it was written in three languages is because it’s important that people understand the words.”
On top of that, Fjelstad invokes the First Amendment to the Constitution. “Government should never mandate that the Pledge or the National Anthem be said in one language,” he says.
Fjelstad’s conclusion: “I see nothing wrong with what we’ve been doing.”
But he’s not sure the school board will see it that way.
“The school board has the right to overturn my decision,” he says. “If they do, I won’t be insubordinate. I will comply. I won’t be fired. But I’ll be on record as saying I disagree with that decision, and that I believe people are suppressing what is a freedom of our country.”