Rebel flag fight goes to schools

By Dahleen Glanton | Tribune Staff Reporter

DONALSONVILLE, Ga. – The fight to retain the Confederate battle flag as a symbol of the South has moved from state Capitols into public schools, where a 1st Amendment battle is brewing over whether students should be allowed to wear the emblem on clothing.

In a campaign sweeping the South, legal challenges have been filed against more than a dozen school districts that have banned students from wearing Confederate symbols. Organizers said at least 60 districts from Virginia to Texas have been targeted for federal lawsuits alleging violation of free speech or complaints to the Department of Education charging civil rights violations.

The battle flag has lost prominence in recent years as states bowed to economic and social pressures to remove the symbol from their flags and public buildings.

In Donalsonville, a town of 3,000 people in Georgia’s southwest corner, the American Civil Liberties Union has sued the Seminole County School District on behalf of nine students who claim their right to free speech was violated when the principal ordered them to wear their T-shirts inside out, hiding the Confederate flag, or face disciplinary action.

ACLU supports T-shirts

In the past the ACLU has supported removing the Confederate emblem from state flags, but in this case, attorneys said, the issue is the 1st Amendment. While the ACLU is not part of the larger effort to challenge school policies, attorneys said the case provides an opportunity to teach the value of free speech and diversity.

"T-shirts have long been used by young people to silently express their feelings and views," said Gerry Weber, legal director for the Georgia ACLU. "Protecting that right is at the core of what we do. The fact that this involves Confederate T-shirts does not change the equation."

But officials at Seminole Middle/High School said the shirts contribute to a hostile environment in the school of 900 students, almost evenly divided Black and White. Administrators said they received at least 10 complaints from Black students and teachers offended by the clothing.

"The board’s position is that the shirts are offensive and disruptive when worn in the school," said Sam Harben Jr., an attorney for the school district. "The principal has a right to ban them in order to avoid confrontations and possible fights. There are some die-hard rebels who are upset with the changing of the state flag, and their children are now wearing the flag to school. Sometimes parents get their children to do what they won’t do themselves."

Much of the clothing is from the popular Dixie Outfitters line sold in department stores in the South. The rebel flag is often pictured subtly on a background of wild animals, monster trucks and even sleeping puppies. Some shirts, however, depict slaves in cotton fields.

Most cases involving children punished for wearing Confederate emblems have been in Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana and Virginia. But there have been some in Kentucky, Ohio, Kansas and Pennsylvania.

The Southern Legal Resource Center in South Carolina has filed complaints with the Education Department’s office of civil rights in Washington charging that students were discriminated against on the basis of race and national origin. The cases were filed as a violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but the federal government does not consider Confederate Southern Americans a national origin.

For some Seminole students, the fight is a practical matter.

"I’m not trying to be racist. I wear my shirt because it looks good and sometimes it’s the only thing I have clean," said 15-year-old Mason Mosley. "If I wanted to be racist, I would wear a KKK shirt."

Some fear flag was 1st step

For adults, more is at stake.

"Since the flag has come off the dome, there has been a reign of terror against Confederate heritage," said Kirk Lyons, director of the resource center, which is heading the campaign. "This has sent a green light to school administrators, and parents are not going to put up with it. They are going to stand by their children and fight it in the courts."

In a 1969 landmark decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent School District that schools could not prohibit students from wearing Black armbands in protest of the Vietnam War unless they were disruptive. Since then, dozens of cases involving school dress codes have come before the courts.

Last month, the Supreme Court rejected without comment the appeal of an Ohio student whose T-shirt of rocker Marilyn Manson was banned. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had sided with the school, saying officials could ban offensive shirts even if they did not cause serious disruption. But the same appeals court recently revived a lawsuit by two Kentucky students who were suspended for wearing Hank Williams Jr. shirts with the Confederate flag. Judges ordered the school to clarify its ban.

Seminole County school officials acknowledge they banned the T-shirts after the Georgia Legislature redesigned the state flag in January. The Southern Cross had occupied two-thirds of the flag but now is an icon along the bottom.

School officials said they wanted to follow rules adopted a decade ago banning Malcolm X and Martin Luther King shirts that offended Whites.

"For me, it is a moral issue. I don’t believe in double-standards," said Supt. Larry Bryan. "The definition of disruptive is the key. Do you have to have bloodshed? And if it’s about the 1st Amendment, where do you draw the line? I have seen some pretty rough T-shirts. Should they be allowed too?"

"This is ridiculous. Don’t these kids have rights?" said William Shingler Sr., an attorney and municipal court judge in Donalsonville who contacted the ACLU after his sons were told they couldn’t wear their T-shirts. "If the Black students came to me wanting to wear their Malcolm X shirts, I would defend them too."

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