The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that a school district in California was within its rights when it ordered kids who wore T-shirts adorned with the American flag to turn them inside out.
The context of the decision will likely be lost once this hits the usual places, but it’s significant. The school took the action on Cinco de Mayo on a day which historically featured fights between Latino and Anglo students.
The parents who brought the suit said their kids weren’t trying to incite the Latino students; they were just showing their patriotism, the San Jose Mercury News reports.
“School officials have greater constitutional latitude to suppress student speech than to punish it,” the justices wrote (full opinion here), pointing out that no students were punished in this case.
Officials did not enforce a blanket ban on American flag apparel, but instead allowed two students to return to class when it became clear that their shirts were unlikely to make them targets of violence. The school distinguished among the students based on the perceived threat level, and did not embargo all flag-related clothing.
Eugene Volokh, the UCLA law professor who writes The Volokh Conspiracy, sees a bigger problem here than the one people debating the case might focus on:
Yet even if the judges are right, the situation in the school seems very bad. Somehow, we’ve reached the point that students can’t safely display the American flag in an American school, because of a fear that other students will attack them for it — and the school feels unable to prevent such attacks (by punishing the threateners and the attackers, and by teaching students tolerance for other students’ speech). Something is badly wrong, whether such an incident happens on May 5 or any other day.
And this is especially so because behavior that gets rewarded gets repeated. The school taught its students a simple lesson: If you dislike speech and want it suppressed, then you can get what you want by threatening violence against the speakers. The school will cave in, the speakers will be shut up, and you and your ideology will win. When thuggery pays, the result is more thuggery. Is that the education we want our students to be getting?