Two high school students at St. Anthony’s High School in Long Island have been suspended indefinitely after they walked into an after-hours sporting event wearing a Confederate flag draped over their shoulders. We recently discussed another suspension of a student involving a Confederate flag. I have the same free speech concerns in this case. The question is whether other flags would also be confiscated and the student suspended in my view. While I can certainly understand how this flag represents racism for many, others view the flag as a symbol of Southern heritage and heroism. I often see them in Virginia and recoil a bit due to the association with slavery. However, my concern is where the school is drawing the line on speech.
Brother Gary Cregan, principal of St. Anthony’s High School in South Huntington, stated that “[t]he African-American students who immediately saw it really exercised heroic restraint and fortunately a teacher immediately confiscated the flag and took the students out of the gym.” They were initially suspended for 10 days and will now be barred from returning. Cregan explained to the parents that the flag is a symbol “designed to revive past injustices or to inflame discrimination or racial intolerance, [and] is completely unacceptable and profoundly offensive.” Cregan rejected any claims that the flag represents Southern history or heritage: “I find it just very hard to even imagine why any student in 2014 would even consider or think that a Confederate flag would be anything other than a symbol of hate.” Other students supported the school and said that what matters is that some people are offended by the flag.
I find Cregan’s motives laudable and I also believe that the other students should be commended for showing restraint. However, I am unclear as to the rule applied in this case? Would the school have reacted the same way with a Soviet flag or a Chinese flag or other flags that are viewed any many to represent oppressive histories? How about a rainbow flag viewed immoral by some or an Israeli or Palestinian flag that would inflame contemporary passions? I can understand a ban on any flags or posters at sporting events, but the selection of some symbols raises question of content-based censorship. The flag clearly (and understandably) represents slavery and racism to many. However, it also represents different things to different people. Respected scholars like Civil War historian Shelby Foote have noted that the flag traditionally represented the South’s resistance to Northern political dominance. As discussing in PBS interview, he was sensitive to how many of his friends viewed it as a symbol of racism but he did not share that view. Others view it as a symbol of state’s rights or Southern culture or opposition to speech codes or politically correct sentiments. The point is that, if some flags are allowed, there are a variety of symbols that are viewed as offensive by different groups.
The school is not a state school and thus not subject to the limitation of the First Amendment. Yet, that does not mean that it should engage in arbitrary limitations on speech. I went to the website and I could not find any published rules of conduct. The question is whether there is a rule addressing after-hours events. If the rule is not clear, the question is whether it should be made more explicit as to any and all such symbols — and whether it is fair to suspend the students indefinitely. Teenagers do stupid things and I would not be surprised if this was an effort to get a rise out of everyone. However, in the official statement below, the school does not quote or cite the rule used against the students.
What also concerns me is the reference to punish two students who “blatantly disregarded the principal’s request to discontinue the use of social media to inflame discrimination in the school community by displaying an inappropriate picture and comment.” The school simply states that “These students have been appropriately acted upon.” I fail to see why a school should attempt to censor or block students in discussing this controversy — and disagreeing with the school’s actions. Even if you are comfortable with suspending the boys with the flag, these students appear to be engaging in pure debate over the merits of the rule and the response of the school. The school states “As a Catholic and Franciscan school, Saint Anthony’s will always demand acceptance and respect for all races, religions and cultures.” However, the school should also demand tolerance for different views and the protection of free speech for both its students and faculty. Ordering students not to discuss a controversy (and perhaps not challenging the school’s actions) will do little to quell the controversy. What it will do is to force the debate into the shadows will it will fester and deepen. Declaring “thou shalt not disagree” will not produce agreement — only forced silence. [There are reports that two students may have worn black face in messages on the social media. While there remains the issue of the regulation of after-hours, out-of-school communications, that is obviously a very disturbing matter. However, the general order not to discuss the controversy on social media on the issue remains highly problematic.]
The Confederate flag has not been treated in the federal courts as a form of hate speech and continues to appear in a wide variety of public locations and private displays. Ironically, for some of those students on social media, this controversy may make the flag a symbol of self-expression or resisting compelled speech codes.
What do you think? Was indefinite suspension and the bar on social media discussions warranted in this case?
DATE: April 16, 2014
RE: Confederate flag incident
From: Brother Gary Cregan, OSF, principal,
Saint Anthony’s High School, Huntington, NY
On the evening of Wednesday, April 9, 2014 at Saint Anthony’s High School, Huntington, NY, during a supervised intramural European Handball game with multiple teams, a small number of students displayed a symbol of hate – the Confederate Flag. Upon entering the gym, the flag was confiscated by faculty moderators, and the students were told to leave the property.
The two individuals who were responsible for bringing the flag to school, and for wearing it into the gym, were immediately given a long term suspension the next day. After further discussion and consultation, it became necessary to impose additional disciplinary action. In addition, two other students blatantly disregarded the principal’s request to discontinue the use of social media to inflame discrimination in the school community by displaying an inappropriate picture and comment. These students have been appropriately acted upon.
Saint Anthony’s is committed to addressing the issue of racial intolerance with faculty, students and parents through education, awareness and dialogue in an ongoing basis. The use of any symbol, either historic or current, which carries a meaning designed to revive past injustices, or to inflame discrimination or racial intolerance is completely unacceptable and profoundly offensive. As a Catholic and Franciscan school, Saint Anthony’s will always demand acceptance and respect for all races, religions and cultures.
# # #
Director of Communications