Does the Confederate flag belong in Gaston County classrooms?

Student asked to remove shirt, cover up
October 09, 2010
Amanda Memrick

The Confederate flag represents heritage, not hate, to Hunter Huss High junior Tyler Lewis.

Lewis wore a T-shirt with a Confederate flag symbol to school Tuesday and was asked by school officials not to wear the shirt again or to cover the flag it displayed.

“I have people in my family that has fought and died for that flag,” Lewis said. “I see it as Southern heritage. I’m proud of my Southern heritage.”

Lewis has three ancestors who fought in the Civil War. He’s also a history buff who’s visited many of the historic Civil War sites since he was a small boy.

Whether students have the right to wear the Confederate flag at school has been swirling around the court system for several years.

“It’s an issue that keeps coming up because it’s such a controversial symbol,” said David Hudson, a scholar at the First Amendment Center. “It means different things to different people.”

Freedom of expression vs. school disruption

The debate centers on whether a student’s freedom of expression outweighs a school’s need to stop disruptions.

“Students do still possess First Amendment rights at school,” said Hudson.

A 1969 Supreme Court decision, Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent Community School District, stated: “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

At issue in this case was whether students could wear black armbands protesting the Vietnam War. The court said school officials had to prove that this expression would cause “substantial disruption of or material interference with school activities.”

“Can school officials meet the substantial disruption standard?” Hudson asked. “Can they point to evidence in the school or in the school district that the Confederate flag causes fights in schools?”

Many courts have ruled that if school officials can show any of those things that they can prove they had a right to suppress student expression, Hudson said.

Schools are becoming more hostile to free speech and the courts are letting them get away with “Constitutional murder” by not holding them to a burden of proof, said Kirk D. Lyons, chief trial counsel for the Southern Legal Resource Center, a free-speech advocate for Southern heritage enthusiasts.

“It’s like there’s a special rule for us….It’s like they have a special rule for Confederate kids,” Lyons said. “They’re banning the Confederate symbol to avoid discomfort.”

Courts have let schools slide on proving that the Confederate flag would cause a material and substantial disruption, he said.

“It’s flat intellectually dishonest. Political correctness run amuck,” Lyons said. “Our schools are becoming the enclaves of totalitarianism that the Supreme Court preached (against) in 1969, and that’s what we are fighting.”

Dress code policy

A teacher spotted the Confederate logos on Lewis and sophomore Dylan Reep’s shirts. Lewis said he and Reep were called out to the hallway and school officials told them not to wear the shirts to school again or cover up the flags so they couldn’t be seen.

Gaston County Schools dress code doesn’t mention the Confederate flag. It states that students’ appearance is primarily the responsibility of the students and their parents.

“Each student is expected to maintain an appearance that is neither distracting to other students nor disruptive to the educational environment or the safe and healthy climate of schools,” the policy states. “In addition, items not specifically mentioned may still be deemed inappropriate in a school setting in the judgment of the school administration.”

Lewis said he’s been wearing shirts with similar logos since middle school and this was the first time a school official had ever asked him not to wear one, he said.

Lewis, his father Scott Lewis and school officials met after school to talk about the shirt.

“I said, ‘Here’s the policy. It does not ban the flag. Why are you banning the flag since it’s not in the policy?” Scott Lewis said.

Scott Lewis met Friday with Gaston County Schools Superintendent Reeves McGlohon and system attorney Sonya McGraw.

“Travis is free to wear his shirt to school Monday morning or any other day until a real disturbance would happen,” Scott Lewis said. “As long as he calmly wears his shirt as usual, everything’s fine.”

Travis Lewis said he was happy that he didn’t have to go to court to wear a symbol of his heritage.

“I feel like I accomplished a goal that I was reaching for,” Lewis said. “I’m happy. I’m very happy.”

McGlohon said the school system’s policy prohibits students wearing anything that causes a disruption at school, but doesn’t list specific items or symbols.

“It means that we don’t ban any article of clothing or any symbol at any high school or any school,” McGlohon said. “Our policy is clear. We do not ban anything. We do not allow anything, on the other hand, that is disruptive to the learning process.”

McGlohon said the school system policy does not make a decision on what is or is not disruptive.

“We rely on the judgment of school principals to determine what is disruptive and what is not disruptive at the school at the time,” McGlohon said.

Lyons praised school system officials for following the Constitution. The result was a victory for everybody, he said, because a student keeps his freedom and there’s no cost of litigation.

“It’s kind of rare to be able to work it out in an amicable manner with the students’ rights intact. That doesn’t happen often,” Lyons said. “It’s very refreshing to see the Constitution win once in awhile.”

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