Below is my column today in USA Today on the ruling out of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit over a ban at a California high school of students wearing tee-shirts with American flags during the Mexican heritage celebration Cinco de Mayo. The opinion is Dariano v. Morgan Hill Unified Sch. Dist., 2014 U.S. App. LEXIS 3790.
On Cinco de Mayo in 2010, students who came to Live Oak High School outside San Jose were rounded up by teachers for engaging in offensive speech. The speech? They had American flags on their T-shirts, something the school viewed as insulting to Hispanics. Administrators insisted that only the Mexican flag could be shown on campus that day.
Last week, the school’s actions were unanimously upheld by the federal appellate court in California — a ruling that would allow flags and other patriotic symbols to be banned like profanity or hate speech.
In reality, the ruling is not a sign of contempt for the flag but a sign of contempt for the rights of students. The fact that this speech concerns the flag itself (the very symbol of civil liberties) captures how far the courts have gone in abandoning core First Amendment rights for students.
The case started because Live Oak High was concerned about prior disruptions and saw the American flag as “incendiary” and disrespectful. Accordingly, Assistant Principal Miguel Rodriguez ordered students to change their shirts or turn them inside out to hide the flag. Those who did not comply were sent home. Last Thursday, the federal appellate court in California unanimously upheld the school’s actions. Judge M. Margaret McKeown of the Ninth Circuit ruled, “Our role is not to second-guess the decision to have a Cinco de Mayo celebration or the precautions put in place to avoid violence.” What they did is second-guess the First Amendment and the precautions put in place to protect it.
What is most ironic is that the Ninth Circuit decision was handed down days from the anniversary of the 1969 decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District. In Tinker, the court supported the free speech rights of students who were wearing black armbands in protest of the Vietnam War, a highly divisive issue that had resulted in violent clashes around the country. Then, the court insisted that students did not “shed their constitutional rights … at the schoolhouse gate.”
Since Tinker, however, the federal courts have not only stripped students of their free speech rights at the schoolhouse gate, they also have done so at their bedroom doors. Federal courts have upheld a series of cases where school officials have punished students for statements that they make outside school on social media. The current members of the Supreme Court have fueled this rollback in their own controversial decisions.
What is most disturbing about last week’s decision is that the court entirely misses the distinction between speech and conduct. When presented with threats of violence, the school should punish those who engage in harassing or violent acts. Indeed, the court described an earlier confrontation when some students raised an American flag on Cinco de Mayo and “one Mexican student shouted ‘f*** them white boys. … Let’s f*** them up.’” One would have thought that those who made threats would face action from the school administration. Removing any display of the flag in the face of violence is akin to removing gay students to avoid harassment or girls to avoid sexual assaults.
Our high schools should be training future citizens to live within a pluralistic society. Instead, Live Oak High is teaching students that it is the speech, not those who threaten the speakers, that is the problem. Citizens shaped in such an environment are likely to view speech as a discretionary privilege allowed by our government rather than an individual right guaranteed in our Constitution.
Ironically, the flag is the very symbol of a nation of differing faiths, cultures and races bound by liberty. Perhaps the school was right: If you are going to deny free speech, it is the last thing you want to see.
Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor, is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors.
March 3, 2014