Knight Ridder Newspapers

LEXINGTON, Ky. – (KRT) – Jacqueline Duty’s prom dress created a stir even before she showed up for the May 1 event.

When Duty came to the Russell High School prom in a self-designed red, white and blue gown with the Confederate battle flag as part of the design, she was told to leave.

School leaders, who had heard about Duty’s plans to wear the Confederate-inspired sequined gown, wouldn’t allow her to enter the prom or even leave her vehicle, her lawyers say.

"Her only dance for her senior prom was on the sidewalk to a song playing on the radio," said Earl-Ray Neal, her lawyer.

Now Duty is suing the school district in U.S. District Court in Lexington, saying the school district and administrators violated her First Amendment right to free speech and her right to celebrate her heritage. She also is suing for defamation, false imprisonment and assault.

She plans as well to sue for actual and punitive damages in excess of $50,000.

Her lawyer said Duty lost many scholarships because she was portrayed as a racist after the incident. Duty’s mother added that her daughter graduated near the top of her class in May.

At a news conference Monday in front of the Lexington federal courthouse, Duty showed the news media the dress that caused the uproar.

"I wanted to show part of my Southern heritage," she said, explaining why she wanted to wear the dress. She said she had worked on the dress’ design for four years, adding that it had always been her dream to wear a Confederate-themed dress to her senior prom.

Duty acknowledged that some people might find the Confederate battle flag, sometimes called the Rebel flag, offensive.

But she added: "Everyone has their own opinion. But that’s not mine. I’m proud of where I came from and my background."

Duty, 19, now attends Shawnee State University in Ohio and works part time at a sporting goods store.

Kirk Lyons, one of her lawyers, said Duty waited several months to file the lawsuit because much of the legal work is being done for free. Sons of Confederate Veterans also vowed help pay for some of the legal expenses.

Shortly before the prom, a teacher overheard Duty talking to some friends about the design of her dress. Word of Duty’s plans made its way to principal Sean Howard, who called Duty the night before the prom and told her not to wear the dress, her lawyers said.

Duty’s mother, Max Duty, tried to talk to school officials about their decision but those talks went nowhere, Neal said.

Duty didn’t have another dress to wear. So she decided to go to the prom and see whether school administrators would change their mind.

Howard, the principal, and two police officers met her outside the school, according to the lawsuit.

"Howard intimidated (Duty) by physically striking the vehicle in which she was sitting," the lawsuit said.

Duty said she was surprised by the school’s reaction. The school’s dress code does not address or mention Confederate symbols or the flag, the lawsuit said.

"We’ve all worn Confederate flags to school before," she said.

The lawsuit says that after the prom, school officials made students wearing Confederate symbols change or remove the items even though the symbols were not creating any disruption in the predominantly white high school in northeast Kentucky.

No one from the Russell Independent Board of Education or from Superintendent Ronnie Black’s office could be reached for comment. Black and Howard also are named in the lawsuit.

Although there have been several lawsuits over whether it is appropriate for students to wear Confederate flags or symbols at school, Duty’s could be one of the first to involve a prom dress.

Many Kentucky schools began to re-think their policies about the Rebel flag in 2002 after the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a case involving a Madison County student.

In 1997, Timothy Castorina wore a T-shirt to Madison County school in 1997 proclaiming "Southern Thunder," to commemorate what would have been Hank Williams Sr.’s 74th birthday. Castorina and a friend who also wore the T-shirt were suspended. Castorina was later home-schooled.

U.S. District Court Judge Henry Wilhoit Jr. ruled that T-shirts were not a form of free speech, and tossed out the case. But the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the decision and ordered a new trial.

The case was settled before the second trial began. As part of the settlement, Madison County revamped its dress code policy. It also established criteria for determining what clothing is deemed offensive, and set up an appeals process. Many other school systems have since followed Madison County’s lead.

Lyons and Neal were Castorina’s lawyers.

The U.S. Supreme Court has yet to hear a case over whether a student can wear Confederate symbols to school. But lower courts’ rulings have been mixed, leaving no clear precedent in place.

© 2004, Lexington Herald-Leader

On The Web: