By Leah Farr, October 05, 2005
Shippensburg Area Senior High School student Lee Ashway knew he was in violation of school policy when he wore a T-shirt Monday with a Confederate flag printed on the front.
According to the high school student handbook, Confederate flags fall under "clothing deemed to be inflammatory" in the school dress code.
But when administrators asked Ashway to turn his shirt inside out, he refused and was sent home for the remainder of the day.
Ashway says wearing the shirt is his First Amendment right.
The school disagrees.
"Students need to comply with the students’ dress code," Superintendent Jacqueline Lesney says.
On Tuesday, Ashway wore another shirt to school that read "Shippensburg, banning the first amendment since 2005." This time, he was not sent home. He says he made that T-shirt to protest.
Debate over censoring Confederate flags in school is not new or limited to the Shippensburg Area School District, says Ann Van Dyke, a Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission civil rights investigator and trainer. "The Confederate flag T-shirt is a situation that pops up practically daily across the country."
She says in most instances the courts support a school’s decision to ban the flag if it creates a disruption or invades the rights of others.
In Shippensburg, where there have been concerns with ethnic intimidation and racially motivated altercations this month, banning the Confederate flag in school makes sense, Van Dyke says.
"The bottom line is, schools have a right to stop speech, whether oral, written or in the form of symbols, that they have reason to believe will interfere with education. Many schools in this area have definitely found that the Confederate flag is a divisive symbol."
But simply getting rid of the T-shirt isn’t the solution, she explains, because "the behavior can be a symptom of a larger and deeper problem."
Ashway, who lived for seven years in South Carolina, says wearing the Confederate flag is about heritage, not racism. The self-proclaimed "redneck" is aware of the flag’s reputation as a hate symbol, but he insists that’s not what it means to him. The teen is looking for backing from the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the Southern Legal Resource Center.
Mike Duminiak of the SCV says the flag represents history, even though some use it for a political statement. "Some who peddle hate may use it, but it’s really them and their hate that needs to be disassembled."
Duminiak says he hates when disputes over the flag cause turmoil in communities. But he also says it can be good,
"If the school has open and frank discussion… the community can be better off," he says.
Administrators use case law as a guideline to determine the limits of free speech, Van Dyke says. "If an administrator looks at a shirt and says it’s going to cause a fight, or be extremely intimidating to another student," the speech can be banned.
She says schools need to turn these situations into civics lessons.
"They need to ask the students, ‘Are there times we have the right to do something, but it isn’t the right thing to do?’"