Monday, March 8, 2021

Free speech in flags & T-shirts


Few subjects touch our freedom more than our right of free expression, yet that right is the one most often challenged in schools.

In one instance last week, an Arizona school district’s superintendent wrote an apology letter to a sophomore student at Buckeye Union High School, west of Phoenix, after he attempted to enforce the district’s dress code and prohibit the student from wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt, the Arizona Republic reports.

The letter was addressed to the student and her mother. It was written by Superintendent of Schools Eric Godfrey just two days after a small group of students walked out in protest and representatives from several civil-rights organizations stood with them in solidarity.

On the receiving end of the letter was Mariah Havard, 15, who told school officials fellow students had told her that “black lives don’t matter” and that her shirt was meaningless. Because of the disruption the shirt caused, school officials simply prohibited her from wearing it, which touched off a free-speech debate at the school. Mr Godfrey wrote:

Sometimes there are important messages, such as “Black Lives Matter,” that represent both emotional and complicated issues that, without proper understanding and context, create misunderstanding, division and disruption. …

Student reaction to your T-shirt and the disruption that resulted brought to light the importance of the Buckeye Union High School District instituting faculty and student programs in order to create opportunities for discussion, education and understanding of cultural and racial differences within our community and School District and the need for tolerance. …

I am hopeful this will bring about understanding and tolerance to these important discussions. This situation can become a unifying moment for us all.

He added that he’s working with other organizations to develop “programs to address the cultural and racial differences in our school.”

For her part, Mariah told the Republic she wished the letter had gone into more detail that none of the events that transpired were her fault, but I think everyone knows the truth. She also said she intends to wear the shirt to school in the future.

In other student-speech news at the end of August, principals at two schools in Greenville County, South Carolina, refused to allow students to bring American flags into a football game, WYFF-TV (NBC affiliate) reports.

Students at Travelers Rest, it seems, were using the American flag not in a show of patriotism but to hide unsportsmanlike behavior directed at students from Berea High School. The schools are both in the Greenville County school district, which released a brief statement:

Greenville County Schools encourages and supports the appropriate display of the United States Flag in accord with the United States Flag Code. We do not condone the use of the Flag to shield unsportsmanlike or inappropriate conduct.

To allow such use is disrespectful to the Flag, the principles which it represents and the sacrifices of those who have and are serving to defend it.

There is no ban at the school or district level on the appropriate display of the United States Flag but using it in a manner that is disrespectful to it or the principles it represents will be addressed if it occurs.

In a related case from 2014, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, sitting en banc, ruled that schools didn’t violate students’ free-speech, due-process, or equal-protection rights by saying they couldn’t display the American flag at a Cinco de Mayo celebration, since school officials had determined that such displays might lead to violence against students of Hispanic ethnicity. (Dariano v. Morgan Hill Unified Sch. Dist., Supreme Court denied certiorari)

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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