Earlier this month, in a letter sent to parents and guardians of Ithaca High School students, Principal Joe Wilson announced to the community that his school will no longer allow any students to wear or carry any item that contains an image of the Confederate Flag. The national banner of the ill-fated Confederate States of America, Wilson wrote, “has caused and continues to cause feelings of ill will. … Such feelings in turn have led to disruptions to our operations and educational process.”

Sure, it’s easy to understand an educator hoping to minimize hurt feelings and general disruptions. There are people who link the flag to NASCAR, the Dukes of Hazzard or their heritage from a state that once fought on the Civil War’s losing side; but there are also those who use the “stars and bars” as a symbol of slavery and white supremacy. Everyone who likes their self image better when it’s dressed in the cloak of enlightenment is likely to applaud Wilson on those grounds alone.

Still, no move to suppress free speech should be embraced without some serious critical review, and Ithaca High School’s recent ban fails that scrutiny either way you turn.

First, let’s turn down the constitutional road. In a famous case Wilson knows well because it was used last spring to defend student journalists at IHS’s student newspaper, The Tattler, from Wilson’s censorship, the U.S. Supreme Court in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969) erected a fairly daunting test for school officials who restrict free speech. Noting that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,” the court found that restrictions on student speech are not permitted unless school officials can show that the targeted form of expression will trigger “substantial disruption” or “material interference with school activities.” That same court specifically warned school officials against undermining student free speech just because of “undifferentiated fear or apprehension of disturbance.” Somebody’s hurt feelings or some general fear won’t cut it, the high court said, and as far back as 2001 and as recently as last June federal judges cited Tinker’s test when they struck down bans on the very same Confederate Flag.

The constitutional rule is simple: If you’re offended, tough. If you can demonstrate that sight of the Confederate Flag will trigger violence or major mayhem, then your ban might survive a legal challenge.

That puts Wilson and school officials in a corner. Either they have to admit they’ve reached for a quick fix and pandered to the politically correct crowd, or they have to admit what they’ve been downplaying for years – that Ithaca High School is a racial powder keg that has a serious problem with potentially violent animosity. Exactly that has been claimed in staff reports and reader letters in this newspaper, as well as by students who recently used a committee of Ithaca’s Common Council to try to elevate their concerns, but such claims have always been minimized by school and district officials eager to keep the polish on their district in this “most enlightened city.”

But, perhaps, Wilson’s letter is an admission of a deeper and more dire problem that would pass Tinker’s constitutional test. Let’s then consider that road.

The catch is that if Ithaca High School does have the kind of volatile racial climate that would pass muster with Tinker, banning symbols – whether they be the Confederate flag and camouflage clothing or the once-popular “X” symbol and ultra-baggy jeans – is to meek a remedy for the situation. People who wear images to promote hate will find new symbols for their bigotry. People who react to hatred with violence will figure out the new vernacular and all will be as it was.

The only remedy is to address the underlying hatred that inspires these tensions; and to address this hatred, in all its forms, in the very aggressive and very public way that Ithaca High School and Ithaca in general has steadfastly avoided. It will be uncomfortable. It will be embarrassing. Ithaca and the surrounding communities will have to look in that mirror, shed our beloved pretensions of enlightenment and admit what we and our children really are – as burdened with the American legacy of racism as every other community in this nation.

Until we have that community-wide conversation, Wilson and all the well-intended like him can chase all the symptoms they want, but our illness will never be cured.

Copyright ©2006 The Ithaca Journal

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