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 depictingthe Confederate flag, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled lastweek.

Three students — referred to by their initials B.W.A., R.S. and court documents — were suspended from Farmington High School during the2006-07 school year for refusing to remove clothing portraying the Confederateflag. They appealed to the federal appeals court after a district courtdismissed the case in August 2007.

The court ruled that “based on the evidence in the record, the school’s banon the flag was reasonably related to a substantial disruption, did not amountto viewpoint discrimination, and did not violate the First Amendment.”

The court detailed a series of racially charged incidents in the schooldistrict prior to the suspension of the students. According to court documents,a white student urinated on a black student, white students — includingone carrying an aluminum bat — showed up at a black student’s home, and afight involving racial slurs broke out during a basketball tournament. Therewere also instances of students drawing swastikas and “writing ‘white power’song lyrics.”

The school district dress-code policy, which was adopted in 1995, statesthat “dress that materially disrupts the education environment will beprohibited,” and after prior incidents, school officials specifically banned theConfederate flag symbol.

The court cited Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District,stating that the circumstances in the school district gave theadministrators the right to ban students from wearing the Confederate flagsymbol at school.

“In Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District, the UnitedStates Supreme Court held that school administrators must demonstrate facts thatmight reasonably lead them ‘to forecast substantial disruption of or materialinterference with school activities’ before prohibiting a particular expressionof opinion,” the court said. “Based on the substantial race-related eventsoccurring both at the school and in the community, some of which involved theConfederate flag, we hold that the District’s ban was constitutionallypermissible.”

Farmington Superintendent W.L. Sanders said the ruling “reaffirms theresponsibility of school districts to take preventative action to preventviolence.”

Robert Herman, attorney for Bryce Archambo (“B.W.A.”), said the courts have”swallow(ed) Tinker alive” over the years “by saying that the schooldoesn’t have to wait for anything to happen and that it doesn’t have to beconnected with the speakers in the case.”

Herman said the courts have diluted the protections of Tinkerfurther in this case.

“The courts have essentially taken judicial notice thatthe Confederate flag is inherently a racist statement, which just isn’t true,”Herman said, “and that regardless of the students’ intent in wearing theConfederate flag in this case, the speech would be suppressible on the groundthat there were heightened racial tensions existing in the school as a result ofa handful of incidents that took place at neighboring school over a period oftwo to five years.”

Archambo wore a baseball cap to Farmington High School in September 2006with 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 at-shirt and belt-buckle with the Confederate flag emblem to school. He wassuspended for refusing to cover the images and withdrew from school later thatday.

About four months later, R.S. wore a shirt depicting the Confederate flagto school with the words “The South was right[,] Our school is wrong.” He wassuspended after refusing to change his shirt and went to school the next daywearing a shirt reading “Our school supports freedom of speech for all (exceptSoutherners).” 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.] Oncea rebel, always and forever a rebel. We love B. [W.A.],” according to courtdocuments. 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 taughtprecisely the wrong lesson by overpowering a student’s opinions with forceinstead of with reason.”

For More Information: 

  • Judge OKs Mo. school’s ban on clothes with Confederate flag News Flash, 08/13/2007
  • Former student sues school district for prohibiting Confederate apparel News Flash, 11/28/2006