Thursday August 17, 2006 11:43pm
Reporter: Josh Farmer

Campbell Co., VA –

Few symbols have the power to simultaneously build pride in a group, while instilling fear or anger in another. The Confederate flag is one of those symbols that can do that. Thursday night, Campbell County’s School Board will dole out punishment for a teen who wore that symbol to school last year.

We met the young man, and his family. They say the issue is about their freedom and they plan to fight for it. They’re hoping history will be on their side, but there’s a lot for the board to consider.

Eugene Harris, Suspended – "They say you’ve got this, you’ve got freedom of speech and everything. So, why can’t you wear what you want to?"

It’s a question young people have been asking for at least half a century. The Supreme Court’s looked at it a handful of times already. But before you can say which case applies, you need to understand the circumstances they’re looking at in Campbell County.

Eugene Harris – "I wore a rebel flag shirt."

Charlene Harris, Mother – "And I said, ‘Eugene, are they going to say anything about it?’ And, Eugene said, ‘Well, if they do, I’ll just turn it inside out. No big deal.’"

This time, it was a big deal. And, Eugene will tell you, he didn’t like it when the principal pulled him out of class.

Eugene Harris – "It just went from there. He was saying stuff back to me, and I was saying stuff back to him."

Eugene’s parents don’t think he should have been confronting the principal. But, did he have a legitimate point? They say, yes.

Gene Harris, Father – "I believe everybody’s got a right to be free and happy. And that’s a part of this."

Charlene Harris – "They want to teach the kids about the rebel flag, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King. They want to teach them all those things. But, when you’re standing there telling a kid that they can’t wear something that they’re teaching in school, that’s kind of sending mixed messages to the kids, I think."

Let’s take a look at those Supreme Court cases. Eugene’s family will find support in Tinker v. Des Moines. In 1969, the Court ruled students "don’t shed their constitutional rights when they enter the schoolhouse door." But, it’s not just that easy.

Gene Harris, Father – "My son goes to school for an education. Whether he’s got that shirt on or another one that’s–whatever may be on it, or whatever may not be on it. It’s irrelevant. He’s there to learn."

Problem is hundreds of other kids are there to learn, too. That’s why in Bethel v. Fraser, 1986, the Court ruled schools have "a legitimate interest in teaching students the boundaries of socially acceptable behavior" as part of its educational mission.

So, the question becomes: does wearing the Confederate flag constitute socially acceptable behavior?

Eugene Harris – "They think whoever wears a rebel flag shirt is racist."

Farmer – "You think that’s true?"

Eugene – "No, because I’m not racist."

As it stands now, Eugene would have to spend the next year in Campbell County’s school for alternative education, but they are appealing that ruling. County officials won’t comment on student discipline, other than to say any decision could be based on a combination of events, not just the one T-shirt incident.

As for that T-shirt incident, Campbell County does have a dress code. It says student dress that is disruptive or "reflects adversely on persons due to race, gender, creed, national origin, physical, emotional or intellectual abilities is prohibited."

Copyright 2006 WSET, Inc

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