Confederate-Flag Protest Spurs Suspensions, Debate

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Protests by Duncan, S.C., students who displayed Confederate flags at their high school in defiance of school policy resulted this month in dozens of suspensions and a debate over free speech and racially charged expression.

Officials of Spartanburg County School District 5 said last week that emotions had cooled and the situation was virtually back to normal at James F. Byrnes High School.

They acknowledged that many students had been suspended for up to five days for taking part in protests supporting displays of the red, white, and blue Confederate battle flag. The officials would not confirm reports that more than 100 of the school's 1,253 students had been suspended.

Tension flared at Byrnes High, where enrollment is about three-quarters white and one-quarter black, when six students came to4school on March 4 wearing Confederate flags on their clothing. The principal ordered the students to go home and change, citing district policies banning the display of Confederate flags, as well as a dress code that prohibits "racially intended or provocative" garments.

"Although it is not intended to be that way," said Iddy Andrews, a district spokesman, "we feel the Confederate flag is a provocative type of clothing."

In response to the disciplinary action, about 25 students walked out of classes on March 6 and joined about 25 others in a protest outside, officials said. The protest was repeated for several days, and other students wore flags or flag patches to school.

A spokesman for the national office of the American Civil Liberties Union said the district could face a lawsuit if the ban on wearing Confederate flags was not rescinded.

"The principal's intention of fostering racial harmony is a good one," said John Rosenthal, an ACLU official based in New York City. "However, his methods are all wrong."

Jay P. Heubert, an education-law expert at Harvard University, said a student's wearing of a Confederate-flag emblem is most likely protected under the 1969 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Tinker v. Des Moines. Ruling in favor of students who wore black armbands to school as an antiwar protest, the Court said such expression could not be banned if it did not "materially and substantially" interfere with school operations.

"If we are dealing wih purely individual expression," Mr. Heubert said, "and school policy singles out symbols or ornaments based on the ideas they represent, ... then the Tinker standard probably applies.''--mw

Vol. 10, Issue 26, Page 8

Published in Print: March 20, 1991, as Confederate-Flag Protest Spurs Suspensions, Debate
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