Case pitted speech vs. political correctness

By VAN R. IRION • September 6, 2008

Schools may not ban a flag, any flag, simply because they think it might offend someone. This is a fundamental concept that seems to have been forgotten by many school districts.

That is why so much time and money has been spent fighting about T-shirts in Blount County schools. You see, it’s not about the T-shirts. It’s about the most foundational right protected by the Bill of Rights: free expression. Advertisement

The purpose of the First Amendment is to protect unpopular ideas from government censorship. Popular ideas don’t need protection. The U.S. Supreme Court said in 1989 in Texas vs. Johnson that "If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable."

Despite this clear statement of law, school districts all over the South are banning student displays of the Confederate flag, and their bans are based on the schools’ desire to prevent some students from being offended. School districts have come to believe that political correctness overrides the Constitution.

So, yes, the Blount County lawsuit is about more than just a few students wanting to wear T-shirts that some people don’t like. It’s about whether schools can encourage popular ideas while simultaneously punishing ideas they don’t like. It’s about free speech vs. political correctness. It’s about political correctness vs. well-established Supreme Court interpretation of the Constitution. School’s motives questioned

In the lawsuit against Blount County, school officials were accused of banning the Confederate flag because they thought it would offend some people. The school officials claim that the ban is necessary to prevent disruption to school operations. Yet, the director of Blount County schools stated under oath that he would continue to ban the Confederate flag even if he knew that it would not cause any disruption. He also admitted that he thinks the Confederate flag is offensive, and that he believes that preventing offense, by itself, is sufficient justification to ban the flag. He also said that he plans to keep the ban in place forever unless a court or the school board orders him to lift the ban.

The school pointed to evidence of general racial tension to prove its ban is necessary. The school produced evidence that students have worn Confederate flag shirts in the school dozens of times. Yet, not once has such a display disrupted a class or caused a fight.

On reviewing the evidence presented in the Blount County lawsuit the chief judge of the 6th Circuit wrote he believes the students would be likely to win at a trial. Unfortunately, that judge was not on the three-judge panel that ruled on this case. Absent a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court, the 6th Circuit’s ruling effectively denies the students a trial.

The students will be requesting Supreme Court review. In our opinion, the 6th Circuit ruling is an unacceptable change to several well-established rules of law. It also seems to differ from similar rulings in other circuits. For these and other reasons, we believe that the Supreme Court will be likely to review this case. Please pray that it does.

The right to express our opinions, about any subject, is one of the most precious rights Americans have. You’d think this precious right would be worthy of holding a trial.

Copyright © 2008 The Tennessean

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