Student wins case to wear Confederate flag T-shirt in school

The Associated Press
Posted June 1, 2005

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A federal judge has ruled a high school dress code that banned items bearing the "Rebel flag" is overly broad and violates students’ rights to free speech.

But U.S. District Judge John T. Copenhaver Jr. warned students if they use the Confederate flag as a symbol to violate the rights of others, "the very ban struck down today might be entirely appropriate."

Copenhaver’s ruling came in a lawsuit filed by Hurricane High School senior Franklin Bragg, who was ordered to serve two in-house detentions last November for wearing the T-shirt with the flag’s image. The lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia after attempts to resolve the issue with school officials failed.

Some view the flag as a symbol of hate and racism. Others see it as honoring Southern history. Bragg has said he wore the T-shirt to show his Southern heritage.

Bragg sued Principal Joyce Swanson and the Putnam County Board of Education, arguing he had worn similar T-shirts and a Confederate flag belt buckle before Swanson became principal last fall. Bragg also argued other clothing with political and advertising slogans was permitted.

Swanson modified the 1,000-student school’s dress code to prohibit clothing that featured "profanity, vulgarity, sexual innuendo, and racist language and/or symbols or graphics… This includes items displaying the Rebel flag, which has been used as a symbol of racism at high schools in Putnam County."

Putnam County is 98 percent white, according to the 2000 census. About 0.6 percent of the county’s 51,589 residents are black.

In his ruling, issued Tuesday, Copenhaver wrote that courts have moved to ban such images in schools where racial tensions exist. Testimony at a hearing last month did not show such a climate existed at the Putnam County school.

"To suggest a ban is warranted simply because some associate it with racism proves too much for First Amendment purposes," Copenhaver wrote.

The dress code is unconstitutional because it issues an outright ban on "items" displaying the flag, he wrote.

Although the policy may have been written with the best intentions, "the offending portion unjustifiably silenced a significant amount of permissible speech in contravention of the First Amendment," he wrote.

Swanson said she had not seen the ruling and declined to comment. Copenhaver’s ruling dismissed the board of education from the case.
Copyright © 2005, Orlando Sentinel

On The Web:,0,6721650.story?coll=orl-home-headlines