Confederate Flag In Schools: A Question Of Safety Or Speech?

May 10, 2017

Can a school prevent students from wearing the Confederate flag? The school committee in Easthampton, Massachusetts, did just that this week, raising questions about the rights of students and responsibilities of educators.

Easthampton School Committee member Peter Gunn cast the only vote against the flag ban Tuesday. Gunn said schools have to be careful about restricting freedom of expression.

"The better response for this is for us to be educational and to prepare young people to have the strength of their convictions, and the the confidence and support of their community," Gunn said Monday. "For all those reasons, I would let a student wear a Confederate flag on his shirt to school. I would tell him that I disagree and I would tell him why, but I wouldn't use coercive measures to prevent him from doing it."

Natalie Piorier, a parent of two Easthampton High School students, said racial tensions have been growing for more than six months and the school should focus on student safety "instead of focusing on freedom of speech."

"Because it is not freedom of speech when you are in a school building," she said. "It is about keeping all students safe so they do not have interruption in education process."

Ask an attorney about the free speech rights of students in a public school, they'll often cite the 1969 Tinker case. Students in Des Moines, Iowa, were suspended from school after wearing black armbands in protest of the Vietnam War. At first, a U.S. District Court backed the suspensions, saying the protest disrupted learning. 

But the Supreme Court disagreed.

"The Supreme Court said 'no,'" said Bill Newman, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union. "Because undifferentiated fear or apprehension is not a basis to say that students can't speak freely in schools."

Newman said school systems need proof of substantial disruption to education before suspending First Amendment rights.

But Glenn Koocher, the executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, said some symbols -- like the Confederate flag -- can distract students from their right to obtain an education.

"If they are surrounded by symbols of hate, or symbols which they can reasonably and legitimately believe generate hatred towards them, they have the right to be free of those symbols," Koocher said.

Peter Gunn said Easthampton High School will continue to hold listening sessions with students about racial tensions. It's his hope these conversations will get the school to the point where they don't have to continue the ban on the Confederate flag.