Expression or disruption? Student, mother say art should have been displayed; district says principal’s decision in best interest of school

March 28, 2013

BOWMAN — Bethune-Bowman High School’s top science scholar says he’s been denied the right to express himself because his painting for art class included a picture of the Confederate flag.

Jacob Lambert was honored at the March board meeting for having the highest science score at the high school. But a day later, he was told his silhouette of a deer’s head and the Confederate flag would not be displayed with the work of his classmates.

“The project was supposed be about whatever you wanted to draw … and they said they’d put it on the wall,” Lambert said. “I feel like I have the right to express my opinion and how I feel.”

However, Orangeburg Consolidated School District Five spokesman Greg Carson said the flag is controversial and displaying it could be disruptive. The administration had the right to decide not to display it, he said.

The district fully supports “creativity and freedom of expression by our students, as long as the expression does not cause substantial disruption or infringe upon the rights of other students or staff,” Carson said. But it’s left to the discretion of the principal to decide if a particular item may lead to a disruption in the school or infringe on the rights of others.

Carson noted the painting was graded and Lambert got credit for completing the project.

“The decision was in no way intended to punish the student but was to avoid a disruption at school, which is in the best interests of this student and the school community,” he said.

Lambert said he never thought about the historical slant to the flag. To him it means a way of life, he said.

“I just drew the deer because I like to hunt and (I like) the rebel flag. I just wanted it on there. I grew up with it. It means freedom, country, hunting, redneck,” he said.

Neither his classmates nor his teacher seemed upset over the painting, he said.

“They just asked me why I was doing it and I said because I wanted to,” he said.

Deborah Lambert said she talked with Principal Marvin Foster after she learned he’d refused to allow her son’s painting to be put on display. The principal said the flag has racist connotations and would not be displayed in the school, she said.

Foster declined to comment on the issue, but allowed the district to speak for him. Carson said Foster denied making a comment about the flag being a racist symbol.

Lambert said she and her son don’t see the Confederate flag as racist.

The American Civil Liberties Union says the right of students to express themselves in public school is protected by law within certain parameters.

Victoria Middleton, executive director of the ACLU of South Carolina, says  the U.S. Supreme Court has determined that students can express their opinions orally and in writing, in leaflets and on buttons, armbands or T-shirts. Their right to do so is limited only when it “materially and substantially” disrupts classes or other school activities. Additionally, the court  has said that a district or school cannot censor one side of an issue.

Middleton said that while she does not have the full facts in the Orangeburg case, some court cases have said displaying the Confederate flag in a district with a history of racial tension can be considered a racially provocative statement.

Under those circumstances, it could possibly justify the school not including the painting in an art exhibit, she said.

© Copyright 2013, The Times and Democrat

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