Judge OKs Mo. school's ban on clothes with Confederate flag

Ruling: Fears of disruption were reasonable given previous racial incidents

MISSOURI -- A federal district court on Friday dismissed a lawsuit filed by three high school students who were punished for wearing Confederate symbols to school.

Farmington High School student Bryce Archambo wore a hat in September with a picture of the Confederate flag and the words "C.S.A., Rebel Pride, 1861." School officials made him take off the hat, but Archambo returned the next day wearing a T-shirt and belt buckle with a Confederate flag image and the words "Dixie Classic." He was sent home after refusing to remove or cover the images. His mother withdrew him from the school that day, and he filed suit against the school district in November.

In January, two other students -- identified in the suit only by their initials -- also were punished for wearing clothes that contained Confederate images and statements of support for Archambo. Both students joined the suit in March. All three students argued that wearing the Confederate flag is protected expression under the First Amendment.

Officials from the school district argued that the clothes violated the school's dress code, which bans "[d]ress that materially disrupts the educational environment." That language mirrors the legal standard set in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, a 1969 Supreme Court ruling that prohibits public school administrators from suppressing student expression unless the expression would materially disrupt school operations or invade the rights of others.

In dismissing the suit, U.S. District Judge Jean C. Hamilton ruled it was reasonable for Farmington administrators to fear that allowing the students to wear images of the Confederate flag would increase racial tensions and thus materially disrupt the school environment. The decision took note of several racially motivated incidents in the school district the previous year.

For example, in May 2005 a white student urinated on a black student -- allegedly saying "that is what black people deserve" -- while two other white students watched. One black Farmington High School student's family moved out of the district after several confrontations in September 2005 between the black student and several white Farmington students, including a fight at the black student's home. And two months later, a fight broke out at a basketball game between Farmington and Festus Senior High School after Farmington players allegedly directed racial slurs at two black Festus players.

"Against this backdrop, the Court cannot conclude that Defendants banned the Confederate flag because of nothing more than 'undifferentiated fear or apprehension of disturbance,' " Hamilton wrote.

For More Information:

B.W.A. v. Farmington R-7 Sch. Dist., No. 06-1691 (E.D. Mo. Aug. 10, 2007).

Farmington High School, Missouri, news