Teacher’s First Amendment lesson quashed

A history teacher in North Carolina is bound to get into some hot water for teaching kids about history, specifically the First Amendment of the Constitution which gives the right to burn, cut, or step on the American flag.

So that’s what Lee Francis did at his high school on Monday, WRAL reports.

“I put the flag on the ground and I took two steps with my right foot and I said, ‘This is an example of free speech,'” Francis said. “Two students got up and left immediately with no word, no disruption at all…I assumed something had happened. One student came to where I was and took the flag from me.”

He’s been suspended from his position.

The superintendent of the district said there are other ways to teach the First Amendment.

“The idea to label me as anti-American or someone who hates the flag is very disingenuous when you look at the context of the lesson,” the teacher tells the Fayetteville Observer. “It saddens me that this is the direction of where the conversation is going.”

  • Joseph

    While I agree it’s important to teach the 1st Amendment, that is not the best way to teach it, especially since the school is in the community that is home to Fort Bragg (Home of the 101st Airborne) and where many students have parents who are soldiers and/or have parents who are deployed…

    • BReynolds33

      What is the best way to teach it, then? Does the first amendment only apply outside communities where military bases are located?

    • fromthesidelines21

      Yeah, it’s seems odd that the teacher is surprised by the reaction of the students and community. I think a more useful teaching tool would showing pictures or video footage of actual protests involved symbolically charged speech. Maybe a Vietnam War protest or even images from recent pro sporting events. I just think the teacher deliberately used a shocking display to prove a point. He’s free to do it (and should be) but I don’t think it helped the discussion he was hoping to have.

      It would also be nice if the school stood by the teacher even if he could have used an alternate teaching tool in this case.

      • rallysocks

        I think it was an appropriate and real life way to teach the lesson. Life doesn’t happen in a vacuum and teaching kids early on how to handle situations that make them so uncomfortable they have to leave the room, or felt they had to take the flag from the teacher, the better off society will be. Internet comment sections provide plenty of proof that we would rather process reactions anonymously through keyboard flaming than having rational discussions or reactions.

        • fromthesidelines21

          I guess I think he could have had a better lesson discussing “‘what if I’ or ‘what if one of your classmates’ were to take this flag throw it on the floor and stomp on it because of___?” “How would that make you feel? Is it/should it be allowed?”

          Actually stepping on the flag certainly demonstrated the strong reaction the FA can generate but for me it was unnecessarily provocative in a HS setting. Particularly with the community he teaches in. What if he were in an predominantly black urban school and he put on a hood or swastika arm band to prove the point? Protected speech yes, but probably not the best teaching tool in my opinion.

          • rallysocks

            I don’t know…we had a teacher in high school who, unknown to us at the time, decided to play devil’s advocate during a classroom discussion. I was completely shocked that a person I admired and respected could hold such an odious opinion. It made quite an impression on all of us, and in a high school classroom, we had to keep a respectful tone. I think there’s great value in that kind of teaching method.

  • Mike Worcester

    Oh boy…..

    I can think of any number of alternate approaches the instructor could have taken (as I’m sure many other commenters will also), that would have accomplished his eventual goal of trying to demonstrate how the First Amendment some times means putting up with words/actions we find difficult to accept.

    Would I have done it that way? Probably not. At the same time, it is a lesson that best learned early. (As the great civil liberties writer Nat Hentoff once said, “there is no good taste clause to the first amendment”.) In other words, teaching the true nature of the F.A. can be as messy as putting it into practice.

  • It’s refreshing to see school administrators not overreacting.

  • I’d cancel all history classes and replace them with a debate, argumentation, and critical thinking curriculum .

    • Or just link classes to the comments section of NewsCut.


    • Sam M

      Those subjects can and are incorporated in current curriculum.

  • From the linked article:

    “I think he’s right, absolutely there could be other ways to teach the subject, but in the same vein the way that I taught it can’t necessarily be wrong,” Francis said.

  • crystals

    As a former teacher in North Carolina, I think it’s worth noting that the protections this teacher has are, unfortunately, likely far different than what teachers in Minnesota would enjoy (and in my opinion, deserve).

    Protecting a teacher’s rights to TEACH their students – thoughtfully and critically – is something I will never criticize.

  • Jason Mock

    The lessons learned may not be the ones he intended to teach. Most powerfully, that the first amendment does not offer protection against a negative reaction by your employer. Also, that critical thinking is not a widely valued skill set, below the level of graduate school or so.

    • DavidG

      When that employer is the government, it does.

      • Jason Mock

        Actually, no.

        “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

        I think we’d agree they can not imprison, or otherwise “silence” him, but can they suspend him? Reprimand him? Fire him? Not quite as clear cut in all cases.


        Interesting reading, on the first Amendment rights of Public Employees.

        • DavidG

          If you read the link, it does. It’s not absolute, and the exact boundaries are not fully defined, but they certainly have protections.

  • Will

    The teacher still has a code of conduct they must follow, physically acting out something to demonstrate it would not be ok in a lot of lessons in class, had the teacher burned the flag in front of the students in the school would that be a punishable offense for the teacher? Yes, it would put students in danger and it is disrespectful to the flag to many people. The act itself is fully allowed, the punishment that administration hands down for violating a code of conduct is also perfectly legal. You do have freedom of speech but it protects the government from prosecuting the act as a crime; it doesn’t protect you from others who might view your act as offensive and it doesn’t protect you from your employer for violating a code of ethics. Just like an MPR reporter has freedom of speech, they also have to follow the code of conduct MPR has created and they have to refrain from swearing on the air (due to obscenity laws).

    • // Just like an MPR reporter has freedom of speech, they also have to follow the code of conduct MPR has created and they have to refrain from swearing on the air (due to obscenity laws).

      That’s not a code of conduct from MPR. That’s an order from the government.

      • Will

        Thanks for reiterating my last sentence, do you feel that FCC restriction is a violation of the 1st Amendment?

        • The courts obviously say it’s not so officially it’s not. I would say that the First Amendment is not provided equally on matters of freedom of the press as there is no restriction on content for newspapers. Not so for the broadcast media — cigarette ads , for example — because the government regulates the electronic media.

          There are exceptions to every amendment. Take the second amendment, for example. Not everyone is allowed to bear arms.

  • Leroy

    I fail to see how this is any different than someone wearing a flag as a tee shirt.

    Sadly I think the schools reaction to this is a lesson all in its own. That freedom of speech is not the all powerful right that people make it out to be (all to often only when the speech is something they agree with)

    • Veronica

      It’s not, but a whole segment of the economy is dependent on selling flag shirts to people who actually don’t understand that which they claim to support.

      • I still find it the height of irony that Minnesota enacted a law requiring that all American flags sold in Minnesota must be made in the United States.

        • Veronica

          It’s easy political grandstanding.

  • Mike

    >>The superintendent of the district said there are other ways to teach the First Amendment.<<

    Something tells me this superintendent wouldn't approve of any method of teaching the First Amendment that… you know… actually taught it.

    Perhaps he would prefer a robust classroom discussion of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District? I doubt it. Those kids might get ideas.


  • Fred, Just Fred

    1. This teacher works in the Fayetteville N.C. area.

    2. His school draws students from Ft. Bragg, home of the United States Army Special Operations Command.

    3. His students have parents wearing that flag into harms way, every day.

    4. It is not unlikely that some of his students saw that flag draped over the casket of one of their parents, or the parents of one of their friends.

    That background is necessary to fully understand the colossal, deplorable failure he intentionally perpetrated. Also, I think the fact that he was a Democrat candidate for the US House of Reps. is noteworthy and gives insight to his possible motivations.

    • crystals

      Okay, I’ll bite. What possible motivations?

      And if you’re calling this classroom lesson on our Bill of Rights a colossal, deplorable failure that was perpetrated…well. I’d love to know what you’d call some of the other things that have happened in our country over the last 48 hours.

      • Fred, Just Fred

        You answered your own question.

        • We’re back to the “what does the flag represent” discussion, which will go nowhere new.

          One approach to teaching the First Amendment — or any other Amendment for that matter — is to question whether it serves the purpose the framers intended and, if not, why not.

          I might even break the class in two and assign each to take a side and debate as if it were the Constitutional Convention. Maybe even invite their parents to a special night.

          Maybe at the same time everyone could learn how to discuss and debate and stifle the immediate need to take everything to Facebook.

          Also, I’d probably have a basket at the front of the class at the beginning in which the kids would be required to put their cellphones in.

          They could pick them up after class.

          • Fred, Just Fred

            This makes it sound that you’re just upset because he was caught unnecessarily disrespecting the flag in front of a bunch of Army kids.

          • KTN

            Disrespecting the flag – is that illegal. Remember, nobody cares if you are offended and certainly the Constitution does not care. The guy is within the law, and if he is fired, he will most certainly prevail – unless of course the court throws the case out before it goes to a trial (which it would most likely do, judges don’t like frivolous lawsuits).

          • Veronica

            Nope, not illegal.

          • I’m not upset at all, actually. I find this all to be a wonderfully healthy exercise in constitutional issues. I’m thrilled to learn the subject still comes up in school. You wouldn’t know it by the ignorance of civics displayed by Americans these days .


            If he doesn’t get “caught”, we don’t have this conversation and Brangelina is still a crisis in America.

            OTOH, I don’t see phones and distractions contributing to the education process, a subject of another post, I imagine.

          • Veronica

            Actually, a college classmate with a legal degree and a prominent educator in MA has very many good things to teach others about the use of devices in school. Here’s her TED talk: https://youtu.be/-g1gQZJjjAA

            I’m very proud of her.

        • crystals

          I genuinely don’t know what you’re referring to. Can you please articulate what you think the teacher’s motivations may have been, and how his having been a Democratic candidate for office is connected to that?

          • rallysocks

            Magic 8 ball says, “Concentrate and ask again.”

          • Fred, Just Fred

            Many, if not most leftists hate that flag, and everything it stands for; I believe this guy is one of those. I can post as many links from leftist social media as you’d like, but I hope you will concede the fact.

            You gave us a taste when your first reaction was to give his deplorable performance cover by alluding to “things that have happened in our country over the last 48 hours”.

            Or maybe you were not alluding to something you consider deplorable, but were suggesting something happened that should make us all proud of our flag?

          • Rob

            Nice to know you hang with the leftists enough to be able to make such declarations on their behalf. Oh, did I mention that I’m a leftist, and that I don’t hate the flag? Never burned none, never stepped on one. I’d tell you I have one flying on the flagpole in my yard, and that I raise it every morning and take it down every evening, but since I’m a leftist, I must be lying.

          • crystals

            I will not concede that fact, actually.

            Furthermore, I can hold multiple ideas in my head at once, such as wondering whether you consider what happened in his classroom and the killing of unarmed citizens by law enforcement equally deplorable. That was my question. The two things are not the same, they are actually quite different in my opinion, but I can still think about and talk about them simultaneously.

            I see our flag as a symbol of freedom and justice for all. Don’t you?

          • Fred, Just Fred

            There is no need to hold multiple ideas in your head in this case, unless you need a handy excuse for a disgusting display of anti-American hatred.

            I see our flag as a symbol of freedom and justice for all. Don’t you?

            Yes, and I think this particularly unnecessary, and deliberate display of contempt for our symbol of freedom and justice for all, in front of that audience in particular was deplorable. Don’t you?

            Try saying it; I bet you can’t.

          • fromthesidelines21

            As I said below I think the teacher could have and should have used other methods to get the students to think about what the FA means. BUT, even if the majority of citizens are offended or find his actions deplorable it is still free speech/expression, which of course was the point of the demonstration.

          • Fred, Just Fred

            You are ignoring the context.

            In Minneapolis South, this is just another day at school.

            This guy teaches school next to the largest army base in the world. It is home to the troops that get sent straight into the sh*t when it hits the fan. He knows who is sitting in those desks; he made this performance not to teach, but to shock and disrespect those kids.

          • // he made this performance not to teach, but to shock and disrespect those kids.

            As I mentioned earlier, I’m adopting some of the NY Times standards for comment moderation and this is one of the areas I’m concentrating on. We speak to what we know to be true, and be clear about what we state is what we think we know v. what we know.

          • fromthesidelines21

            I’m not ignoring the context. I stated in my other posts that I feel he should have chosen a different method to demonstrate free speech. It doesn’t change the fact that this act of expression is constitutional under the FA. Offensive speech is still protected and we should celebrate that fact in America.

            I gather from your posts that you would oppose the so called “PC” culture. You wanting to curb free expression when it bothers you is a form of being “PC.”

          • rallysocks

            Because they are never going to see anti-war/military protests in their lives? Better to teach them how to handle it in a safe, respectful environment, wouldn’t you think?

          • And I’ll also be eliminating all comments that attempt to belittle other commenters.

            Let’s up our game here, people.

          • Fred, Just Fred

            That was a pertinent challenge to make a valid point. But honestly, in light of the responses I’ve read here, about this story, you can delete everything I’ve posted. I am honestly, and truthfully sick to my stomach.

            I’m done with this story.

          • crystals

            PSA: you can delete your own posts, if you really wanted to.

          • crystals

            No, I don’t think it was deplorable. I think it was thought provoking and is leading to important conversations (hopefully in their school and community as well as here). I think that is an important responsibility of our education system. Maybe he could have better explained what he was about to do and why, or maybe he could have approached it differently, but my goodness I would rather have critical, challenging, and rich opportunities for learning than handouts of fill-in-the-blanks.

            To me the beauty of freedom and justice for all (and our flag) is that it means things like this are legal, as is the reality that individuals have very different reactions to what happened.

    • Rob

      Yes, he’s clearly a Commie leftist at best, and a member of an ISIS sleeper cell at worst.

      Or, in the universe that most of us live in, merely a well-meaning but somewhat naive educator.

    • KTN

      Clearly those delicate flowers at Ft Bragg must be protected from this horror.
      Regarding your 3rd point. Wearing the flag is against flag etiquette, you think they would know that. Oh and remember, what he did was fully protected the the 1stA. Nothing to see here, but inflated outrage.

  • MarkUp

    I have yet to hear a single person call for a class on flag etiquette.

    Does anybody know if he’s tenured? I know that was an issue in NC recently, but none of the reporting seems to think it’s worth noting.

  • The other aspect of this that is fascinating is the other flag in our history. This one (the one without the KKK symbol). People have a right to wave it, but does it become a version of “fighting words” (Not in a a legal sense, I know it doesn’t, but in a practical sense)? If one’s actions should consider those it might offend, what accommodations should be made — if any — for its use? https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/1f7648c18d81ca8372021afd944d92ea3d281f7609f7cfdc4057f0b4f62254e2.jpg

    • KTN

      For this flag, no accommodations should be made. This is different than exercising a 1stA right, as bound by the Courts decision. This flag does not represent our country, it represents hatred and institutional racism. While this flag does offend me, those patriots in the photo (they look like such a happy group don’t they) are within their rights to defend it, wave it, and love it,

      I think that the fighting words exception to the 1stA might be relevant in certain circumstances with regard to this flag – of course context matters, but under the prevailing sentiment in the South in particular, where states are moving to remove the flag from prominence might change how the flag is precieved in general. That perception could be used as to bolster the fighting words exception.

      • But waving a Confederate flag is protected speech just as telling Muslims to Get Out is protected speech. Offensive to Muslims, obviously. But the point has been made that so is stepping on an American flag in the shadow of a military base.

        • KTN

          I still don’t know what the proximity to a military base has to do with this matter. The same people will be outraged no matter where this happened. 2 of his students got up and left the room, which means the majority of his students were presumably thought provoked to stay and have a discussion (according to the teacher), and were either not offended, or were intrigued enough not to walk out in a huff.

          • MarkUp

            Correct me if I’m wrong, but were the 2 students that walked out exercising their own 1st A right in an act of protest to the teaching method?

          • KTN

            Not sure. As Justice Brennan said, “school children do not lose constitutional rights when they walk through the school house door”, there are still limits to those rights. I guess it would be up to the district to determine if those 2 violated school rules by walking out – I think Tinker might be a guiding case in this instance.

  • Veronica

    I witnessed a flag retirement ceremony on Sunday. A few things I found really inspiring and intriguing, and this seems like a good opportunity to share.

    There are no laws concerning the display of the flag, just a written code of conduct. The person leading the ceremony was very clear on this matter. The code of conduct changes. I was very interested to learn that, per a change made in 2016, it’s now considered completely fine if the flag touches the floor as long as it’s a material that can be washed, and then the flag gets washed. Easy.

    Also, you can only do a flag retirement ceremony after you’ve witnessed one. The VFW authorized the Girl Scouts and the Boy Scouts to retire flags. So when the scouts I was with this weekend retired 4 flags, I was also very surprised to see how quickly they burned completely.

    Stepping on the flag is about equal to keeping up a tattered flag. The only difference is one action is usually done deliberately, the other through ignorance or willful neglect. However, and I think this may be the critical point, it’s hypocritical to assert that one part of the flag code be enforced with regards to employment or anything else while ignoring the other aspects of the code.

    I’m no legal scholar, but other than firing a teacher over optics, the school doesn’t have standing to justify their actions.

    Again, stepping on the flag is no worse than flying a tattered flag or not taking down a flag from an unlit pole at sundown, yet this is inconvenient for the outrage machine.

  • Fred, Just Fred

    I wonder how all you patriotic defenders of the 1st amendment would respond to a teacher at Minneapolis North using a photoshopped image of Keith Ellison wearing an ISIS uniform, waving a bloody knife to teach it. I think that would be an excellent and much needed lesson for everyone; not so much about the Constitution, but for common decency in a civil society.

    • rallysocks

      That literally makes no sense.

    • I imagine people would be offended and they’d have a right to be, just as the students and parents have a right to be offended in Fayetteville. Just as Muslims might be in Lonsdale. Just as humans would be when the Westboro Baptist Church celebrates the death of a soldier. Just as Jews in Skokie would be when the Nazis march. Just as some people are when a football player or a volleyball player or a cheerleader takes a knee.

      This is not a new conundrum, this tension between rights and response is likely as old as our nation.

      [By the way, I don’t know that I’ve ever met anyone who is consistent on this tension. The roles today, for example, are completely reversed from another thread earlier this week on what is basically the same tension. We want to believe we have it resolved as individuals. But we don’t .]

      [We bludgeon each other with our rightness, and then switch partners when a situation puts us on the other side of a once obvious equation and then we return our own fire. And it is wonderful to watch, mostly because we can.]

      As I’ve noted many, many times, it’s easy to embrace Constitutional rights and the exercise thereof when it doesn’t offend. But the power of the Constitution comes from the battle scars of tests with rapists (Miranda) and anti-Semites (Jay Near), and Nazis — the most despicable and deplorable among us.

      Your first sentence, by the way, recalls another ongoing — and not new — debate. What is the definition of patriotism?

      • Fred, Just Fred

        Of course they’d be offended. The question is, would they be reminding one another that it was a perfectly legal, and appropriate method of teaching. Would they be defending the teacher?

        See, for me, it’s not about the flag. I’ve said before it doesn’t mean much to me anymore. This story is about common decency. This is about an adult that is trusted with kids showing a complete lack of respect for the people that trusted him and for the kids he was trusted with.

        • Would they? They would defend that which agrees with their position at the time. Just as everyone does on these questions of – as you put it — decency v. rights.

          We like to think of ourselves as immovable philosophical forces; it’s a lie we tell ourselves constantly. But we aren’t and it’s important to see that we aren’t so that we can come to these discussions with an ability to understand opposition because — whether we admit it or not — we were once on the other side of the philosophy embraced when it was unquestionably easy to be.

          It’s the part where it’s hard that unlocks the true power of what the flag represents.

          God bless America.

          • Fred, Just Fred

            Well, I can tell you this; unlike some earlier commentators, I would have no problem describing a deplorable scene as deplorable. There are way too many people, mostly leftists in my view, out there defending despicable behaviors with “no laws were broken; it’s legal”.

            For me, the concept of right and wrong, irrespective of what is legal, still has value. It is something I taught my kids to value, too.

          • Parenting is a blast. We give them these brilliant pieces of advice and then somewhere along the line they ask, ‘ if this scenario is wrong, what makes this other scenario that seems almost the same thing not wrong…or not as wrong? What makes one scenario deplorable but another less so? Where exactly is the line of right and wrong and how do I know which values to apply because I’ve got all these various ones that could fit?”

            Kids, man.

            By the way, I think you might be giving yourself too much credit for being unlike earlier commentators. We’ve known each other a long time.

            The next person I meet who shows consistency on this will be the first person I’ve met who shows consistency on this.

          • Fred, Just Fred

            There may be some issues that need more introspection, but anything anyone excuses with “well, there is no law against it” is almost guaranteed to be wrong.

          • KTN

            But right and wrong are normative, and who decides what should fit into that box. What, in your opinion ought to be the punishment for that teacher. Should he be fired, or forced to attend sensitivity training, or jail.

          • crystals

            Is this the NewsCut version of a subtweet? (I feel so special!)

          • rallysocks

            For someone who says the flag doesn’t mean much to him anymore, you sure are obsessing about the flag being used in a deplorable manner. In the grand scheme of things, what this teacher did is pretty mild. Why does this upset you so much?

          • Veronica

            “America is advanced citizenship.”

            I’ve wanted to post this a million times this election. I’m going to leave it here. https://youtu.be/OC2jhQ0KAAU

    • KTN

      I guess your not a defender of the 1stA, curious. Oh, and you cannot bring a bloody knife into a school, you might have one of those good guys with a gun we hear about shooting you for it. Remember, the teacher was not protesting by stepping on the flag he was teaching that we have the right to do so, sort of a big difference. Seems lost on you however.

    • Rob

      Since Ellison isn’t a member of ISIS, what pedagogical point would the teacher be making by using a photoshopped image of him wearing an ISIS uniform and waving a bloody knife?

      • Fred, Just Fred

        The flag isn’t a mop.

        • Rob

          Thanks for the non sequitur answer.

  • lindblomeagles

    Lee Francis, you’ve been Kaepernicked. And hey, you weren’t even protesting anything either.