Appellate court rules OK for school to punish students for Confederate flag clothing
MISSOURI -- Administrators at Farmington High School in St. Louis, Mo., were justified in suspending students for wearing clothing depicting the Confederate flag, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last week.
Three students -- referred to by their initials B.W.A., R.S. and S.B. in court documents -- were suspended from Farmington High School during the 2006-07 school year for refusing to remove clothing portraying the Confederate flag. They appealed to the federal appeals court after a district court dismissed the case in August 2007.
The court ruled that "based on the evidence in the record, the school's ban on the flag was reasonably related to a substantial disruption, did not amount to viewpoint discrimination, and did not violate the First Amendment."
The court detailed a series of racially charged incidents in the school district prior to the suspension of the students. According to court documents, a white student urinated on a black student, white students -- including one carrying an aluminum bat -- showed up at a black student's home, and a fight involving racial slurs broke out during a basketball tournament. There were also instances of students drawing swastikas and "writing 'white power' song lyrics."
The school district dress-code policy, which was adopted in 1995, states that "dress that materially disrupts the education environment will be prohibited," and after prior incidents, school officials specifically banned the Confederate flag symbol.
The court cited Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District, stating that the circumstances in the school district gave the administrators the right to ban students from wearing the Confederate flag symbol at school.
"In Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District, the United States Supreme Court held that school administrators must demonstrate facts that might reasonably lead them 'to forecast substantial disruption of or material interference with school activities' before prohibiting a particular expression of opinion," the court said. "Based on the substantial race-related events occurring both at the school and in the community, some of which involved the Confederate flag, we hold that the District's ban was constitutionally permissible."
Farmington Superintendent W.L. Sanders said the ruling "reaffirms the responsibility of school districts to take preventative action to prevent violence."
Robert Herman, attorney for Bryce Archambo ("B.W.A."), said the courts have "swallow(ed) Tinker alive" over the years "by saying that the school doesn't have to wait for anything to happen and that it doesn't have to be connected with the speakers in the case."
Herman said the courts have diluted the protections of Tinker further in this case.
"The courts have essentially taken judicial notice that the Confederate flag is inherently a racist statement, which just isn't true," Herman said, "and that regardless of the students' intent in wearing the Confederate flag in this case, the speech would be suppressible on the ground that there were heightened racial tensions existing in the school as a result of a handful of incidents that took place at neighboring school over a period of two to five years."
Archambo wore a baseball cap to Farmington High School in September 2006 with a picture of the Confederate flag and the words "C.S.A. Rebel Pride, 1861." School officials asked him to remove the hat, and the next day, Archambo wore a t-shirt and belt-buckle with the Confederate flag emblem to school. He was suspended for refusing to cover the images and withdrew from school later that day.
About four months later, R.S. wore a shirt depicting the Confederate flag to school with the words "The South was right[,] Our school is wrong." He was suspended after refusing to change his shirt and went to school the next day wearing a shirt reading "Our school supports freedom of speech for all (except Southerners)." He complied when school officials asked him to change his shirt.
A few days later, S.B. wore a shirt that said "Help Support B. [W.A.] Once a rebel, always and forever a rebel. We love B. [W.A.]," according to court documents. She was also suspended after refusing to change.
Herman said they plan to appeal to the Supreme Court.
"I am not going to defend racist views because I think they are wrong," Herman said. "But I think the court and the school in this case has taught precisely the wrong lesson by overpowering a student's opinions with force instead of with reason."
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