January 30, 2007
6 News Reporter

KNOXVILLE (WATE) — A controversy over school dress code and racism has landed in federal court. An Anderson County High School student is suing the school, claiming his constitutional right to freedom of speech has been violated.

At the center of the argument is whether students should be allowed to wear the Confederate flag. The federal court judge has not yet made a decision in the case.

Tommy Defoe, 17, who was suspended for displaying the Confederate flag on his clothing, says it has nothing to do with racism. School officials argue the symbol is banned because it’s offensive to some and could cause disruption.

Defoe has been suspended from school four times for wearing T-shirts and a belt buckle displaying the Confederate flag.

Explaining why the symbol is banned in Anderson County Schools, educators cite half a dozen times racial tensions have risen in the school. That includes when a Confederate flag was hung in the hallway the same week two African-American students enrolled.

Similar cases were cited in Clinton High School and an Anderson County middle school. Now a federal court judge must decide if the school policy is a civil rights violation.

Arthur Knight, attorney for the Anderson County Board of Education, explains, "We educate kids and we want all kids of all races, of all backgrounds, religions or whatever to be able to come into school and learn without disruption."

Tommy Defoe says it has nothing to do with racism. He says he wears the flag out of pride. "It’s my heritage and I believe I need to wear it because it’s our Southern heritage. That’s the only reason I want to wear it."

Defoe’s attorney, Van Irion, argues, "The school district must show that the offending symbol would cause disruption if left in the school. In this case, Tom Defoe has worn these T-shirts in the school on many occasions without any disruption whatsoever."

A former NAACP leader and supporter of the Confederate flag was in the courtroom Tuesday supporting the right for students to display the flag.

"I’m so very proud of this young man. He’s not only standing up for himself, he’s standing up for me too," says H.K. Edgerton says.

"The thing that I’m so offended and incensed by, personally here today, is that I continue to go into these courtrooms and these people keep presuming to assume what all black folks think," Edgerton adds.

A ruling in this case is still weeks away. Until then, the school dress code will remain in place and Tommy Defoe says he’ll continue to wear the Confederate flag.

A similar case in Blount County still hasn’t gone to trial.

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