The historic Gadsden flag is at the heart of a controversy involving a twelve-year-old boy in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The child was removed from the school due to a patch on his backpack featuring the flag. The school district defended the action and claimed that, despite its historical symbolism, it is now considered racist and connected to slavery. Not only is the flag a historical image originally unconnected to slavery, but the action (in my view) contravenes core free speech protections.
The flag was designed by Christopher Gadsden of South Carolina in 1775 as a symbol of the defiance of colonists to British rule. (Some trace the origins of the flag earlier to a design by Benjamin Franklin). Featuring a timber snake, it affirmed the view of the colonists that they would not be stepped on by overbearing British officials and troops.
While Gadsden would become a brigadier general in the Continental Army, he gave the flag to Commodore Esek Hopkins who later adopted it as his flag as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Navy. For the revolutionaries, it embodied the essence of the war: they were the victims of the British overstepping their authority and treading upon the rights of the colonies.
The historic image is still cherished by many, including those who see it as a symbol of defiance of individual citizens to overreaching government action.
That was the view at The Vanguard School in Colorado Springs. A video on the social media platform X, shows the 12-year-old elementary school student being removed from class.
A staff member explained that the image is now deemed “disruptive to the classroom environment” and that it has “origins with slavery.” The boy’s parent is told that the child must remove the patch before he can return to school.
The staffer tells the parent to speak with Jeff Yocum, the director of operations at the school.
Yocum reportedly cited research by a graphic design professor at Iowa State University Paul Bruski, who declared the flag as now a symbol of hate: “Because of its creator’s history and because it is commonly flown alongside ‘Trump 2020’ flags, the Confederate battle flag and other white-supremacist flags, some may now see the Gadsden flag as a symbol of intolerance and hate – or even racism.”
Yocum also reportedly cited a U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) ruling involving a Postal worker, which found that while the flag “originated in the Revolutionary War in a non-racial context,” despite its “historic origins and meaning of the symbol, it also has since been sometimes interpreted to convey racially-tinged messages.”
We previously discussed how the EEOC reinstated a case in 2016 of an employee objecting to another employee wearing a cap with the symbol.
Clearly, symbols can have different meanings for different people. I disagree with Professor Bruski, but respect his right to raise such objections. The question is whether others respect the right of those with opposing views, including viewing this flag as an important and inspiring symbol of the American Revolution.
The censorship of the image strikes me as a clear denial of free speech rights for this student. I obviously do not agree with the historical interpretation, but I am far more concerned about the constitutional interpretation of the school district allowing such censorship of images.
It is an ironic moment for a flag that symbolized the resistance to overbearing government actions and the denial of core rights in the American Revolution.
Today the school district reversed its decision and will now allow the student and the flag back into the school:
From Vanguard’s founding we have proudly supported our Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the ordered liberty that all Americans have enjoyed for almost 250 years. The Vanguard School recognizes the historical significance of the Gadsden flag and its place in history. This incident is an occasion for us to reaffirm our deep commitment to a classical education in support of these American principles.
At this time, the Vanguard School Board and the District have informed the student’s family that he may attend school with the Gadsden flag patch visible on his backpack.