ACLU files suit against Daviess schools

Group objects to ban on Confederate flag T-shirt
05/14/05
By James Mayse
Messenger-Inquirer

The American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky has filed a federal lawsuit against two Daviess County Public Schools officials, claiming they violated a student’s freedom of speech.

The suit, which was filed Thursday in U.S. District Court, says Apollo High School Principal Tom Purcell violated the rights of sophomore Amber Jewell in October when he prevented her from wearing a T-shirt with the Confederate flag logo.

Court documents said Jewell wore the shirt to Apollo several times without incident. Lili Lutgens, staff attorney with the ACLU, said Purcell saw Jewell wearing the shirt in October and forced her to change into a different shirt for the rest of the day.

The suit said Purcell’s actions "deprive Ms. Jewell of freedom of speech, in violation of the First and 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution." Lutgens said Jewell has the right to wear the shirt at the school.

"The type of speech we’re talking about is student speech," Lutgens said. Student speech includes both comments students make at school and messages or symbols on T-shirts, Lutgens said.

"Typically, if a T-shirt bears something that is lewd or vulgar, that can be banned," Lutgens said. But Lutgens said school officials cannot prevent a student from wearing a symbol on a T-shirt unless they "have a good reason to feel disruption will occur."

"Symbols are really ambiguous," Lutgens said. "They mean different things to different people. Schools have to have more than a general apprehension or fear."

The lawsuit also names Superintendent Tom Shelton as a defendant. Shelton said Confederate flags have caused "tension" in county schools.

"We have had incidents in the past … the best way to put it is tension," Shelton said. "I don’t think we’ve had anything beyond some tension and individual fights.

"There was no individual incident that led to this situation."

School board policy allows principals to ban any item that could disrupt education in the schools, Shelton said.

"There is not a policy per say that prohibits a Confederate flag," Shelton said. "That’s not the issue. We’re talking about something that disrupts the educational process. We believe there is a good reason (to believe) a disruption will occur. That’s why our principals acted the way they do."

T-shirts with Confederate flags have "the potential to create a situation that is not good to the (school) environment," Shelton said. " They don’t always happen to be Confederate flags. It could be anything that’s disruptive to the educational process."

The same policy against disruptions is used across the state.

"It’s not a specific Daviess County policy," Shelton said.

Previous court cases, Lutgens said, have ruled students can wear clothing with Confederate flags if school staff does not have strong reason to believe the flags will cause a disruption. Lutgens said she did not know when the case would be heard by the court.

"We’re just asking (Jewell) be allowed to wear her T-shirt," Lutgens said.

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