I recently wrote about the declining free speech rights of students in the United States. There is another such case out of New Jersey this week where Gregory Vied, 17, has been suspended for refusing to remove a Confederate flag on his truck. In my view, it is a clear violation of free speech and an abuse of the rights of this student to express his views and associations by the administrators of Steinert High School in Hamilton Township.
After the American Civil Liberties Union intervened, the school reduced the original suspension of three days to one day. That hardly resolves the matter. The school is still punishing a student for a symbol on his truck outside of the school in the parking lot.
Vied insists that the flag is not meant to reflect racism but Southern pride. (His connection to his family’s Southern roots might be a tad stronger if the flag did not have “REDNECK” written across it, though it does reflect a group identity). Regardless of the message, it is clearly protected speech and shows the degree to which school officials are not imposing their own views on students — and teaching conformity to these future citizens. The decision is part of a growing line of cases granting sweeping deference to school officials and curtailing the free speech rights of students. I have long disagreed with that trend. In Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 U.S. 503 (1969), the Supreme Court supported the first amendment rights of Iowa residents John F. Tinker (15 years old), John’s younger sister Mary Beth Tinker (13 years old), and their friend Christopher Eckhardt (16 years old) in wearing black armbands in protest of the Vietnam War. In his majority decision, Justice Abe Fortas held that “undifferentiated fear or apprehension of disturbance is not enough to overcome the right to freedom of expression.” In a statement would would seem to fit this case, Fortas found that “the record does not demonstrate any facts which might reasonably lead school authorities to forecast substantial disruption of or material interference with school activities, and no disturbances or disorders on the school premises in fact occurred.” Since Tinker, the Supreme Court has steadily limited the speech rights of students as in the ruling in the “Bong Hits For Jesus” case.
If this flag is banned, how about Free Tibet stickers or Black Pride signs or NRA stickers? We have seen schools cracking down on any bumper stickers viewed offensive but there is a decidedly ambiguous standard for such decisions. We have also seen tee-shirts with NRA symbols and American flags banned by schools. Given their school symbol, the Spartans, I wonder what would happen if students began to show images from Sparta where the helots were treated as sub-humans.
Putting aside the constitutional concerns, why shouldn’t students be encouraged to engage in such speech and associations? Many kids are entirely unconnected today and uninterested in public causes or speech. Rather than teaching about the marketplace of ideas, schools are teaching conformity and authoritarian caprice.
The Southern flag is clearly insulting to many people due to its historical associations. However, it is also a simple of Southern heritage and sacrifice. Robert E. Lee himself identified with the flag while rejoicing in the end of slavery. He stated:
In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country.
So far from engaging in a war to perpetuate slavery, I am rejoiced that slavery is abolished. I believe it will be greatly for the interests of the South. So fully am I satisfied of this, as regards Virginia especially, that I would cheerfully have lost all I have lost by the war, and have suffered all I have suffered, to have this object attained.
This is not to say that I am not sympathetic to those objecting to the symbol but I believe that the image of free speech being curtailed in this way is far more disturbing.