Closing arguments for Confederate flag case

Jake Jost – Updated: 8/13/2008

Both the plaintiffs and the defense have rested Wednesday morning, in a case that could test the limit of school dress codes and how they relate to free speech.

Closing arguments in the case are expected to begin at 12:30 Wednesday, and the judge expects to charge the jury Wednesday afternoon.

A former Anderson County High School student has sued the school district and its leadership for suspending him for wearing Confederate battle flag apparel to school and refusing to remove or obscure it. The case is now being heard in Knoxville.

Tom Defoe’s complaint in federal court indicates he was suspended for wearing a Confederate flag T-shirt to school in late October 2006. The principal informed Confederate flag apparel was banned at Anderson County High School and asked him to turn it inside out or take it off. The complaint says Defoe "politely refused to comply" and was suspended from school.

A week later, Defoe wore a Confederate belt buckle to school. The assistant principal of the vocational school told him it violated school policy and asked him to cover or remove the belt buckle. The complaint indicates Defoe "politely refused to remove or cover the buckle" and was again suspended.

On the stand Tuesday, Defoe said the school suspended him at least a dozen times for refusing to take off confederate flag t-shirts or turn them inside out.

"It’s my heritage," he testified. "I’m proud to be a southerner."

He wore a Confederate belt buckle in court.

The complaint indicates Defoe had previously worn various pieces of Confederate flag apparel to school and complied with instruction to remove or cover the clothing.

Defoe’s complaint claims the Confederate flag apparel at no time disrupted the learning environment and that other students are allowed to wear expressions of political or controversial viewpoints.

As a result, Defoe says the policy against the Confederate flag violated his First Amendment rights.

It asks for the court to declare the schools’ policy unconstitutional, for any disciplinary action related to these incidents to be removed from Defoe’s record, and for a permanent injunction against the schools’ policy.

He is also seeking punitive damages, meaning he wants to jury to award money in the case.

Anderson High School principal Greg Deal is one of several individuals named in the lawsuit, in addition to the Anderson County School Board.

He defended the flag ban dress code policy on the stand Tuesday. He detailed several racial incidents and said he senses an undercurrent of racism in the community and at the school.

He said out of about 1,200 total students each year at Anderson High School, one or two of those students are black.

"I see the presence of the rebel flag as being divisive and as a means of intimidation," he testified. "It sends a message that minority students are not welcome."

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