Appeals Court Backs District’s Ban on Confederate T-Shirts

By Mark Walsh — March 27, 2013 2 min read
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A federal appeals court has upheld a South Carolina school district’s restrictions barring a student from wearing various Confederate flag T-shirts to school.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, in Richmond, Va., held unanimously that past racial incidents in the district’s schools and the potential for differing student interpretations of such shirts justified school officials’ view that the shirts were likely to cause a substantial disruption.

The case involves Candace Hardwick, who clashed repeatedly from 2002 to 2006 with administrators at her middle school and high school in the 1,600-student Latta, S.C., district over her desire to wear T-shirts with Confederate themes. The shirts included slogans such as “Southern Chicks,” “Dixie Angels,” “Southern Girls,” and “Daddy’s Little Redneck.”

Hardwick also sought to wear a shirt labeled “Black Confederates,” honoring a Louisiana Civil War regiment made up of free African-Americans. She also tried to wear shirts she characterized as protests of censorship of the others, with slogans such as “Jesus and the Confederate Battle Flag: Banned from Our Schools but Forever in Our Hearts,” and “Offended by School Censorship of Southern Heritage.”

Hardwick and her parents sued the district and school officials under the First Amendment. A federal district court granted summary judgment to the defendants.

In its March 25 decision in Hardwick v. Heyward, the 4th Circuit court said most of the shirts at issue were properly viewed as “Confederate” shirts and could be regulated by the district. The Latta schools had experienced various racial incidents in recent years, some sparked by Confederate-themed shirts, the court said.

“Taken together, [the incidents] tell a story of a community and its schools that, although making progress in race relations, are not immune from incidents of racial conflict,” the court said. “Multiple incidents of racial tension in Latta schools and the potential for such vastly different views among students about the meaning of the Confederate flag provide a sufficient basis to justify the school officials’ conclusion that the Confederate flag shirts would cause a substantial disruption.”

The decision is largely in keeping with other federal district and appeals courts around the country that have upheld restrictions on Confederate shirts as long as school officials could show a likelihood of disruption based on a history of racial tensions in the schools.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.