Blog of Rights

Students' American Flag T-Shirts Are Protected Speech

By Julia Harumi Mass, Staff Attorney, ACLU of Northern California at 3:49pm

Last week, five students at Live Oak High School in Morgan Hill, Calif., were sent home on Cinco de Mayo for wearing T-shirts bearing the American flag. The students were reportedly sent home after Vice Principal Miguel Rodriguez told them the shirts posed a "safety issue" on a day celebrating Mexican heritage.

Punishing students for wearing T-shirts with the American flag is a clear violation of their free speech rights. The ACLU of Northern California responded to the incident by sending a letter (PDF) to Morgan Hill Schools Superintendant Dr. Wesley Smith, reminding him of the speech rights students are entitled to under the U.S. Constitution and California law.

The letter points out that students' wearing of the American flag wouldn't have been controversial but for the interest of other students in celebrating their Mexican heritage on Cinco de Mayo. The students' patriotic display was particularly meaningful because of the context, and their right to express their patriotism in light of that context must be honored. The right to wear an American flag every day but Cinco de Mayo would do little to advance the important work of the First Amendment, whose protections must be enforced every day.

There is another important lesson for the school here. For displays of the American flag to create such a strong concern about disruption, it's likely the school has underlying racial and cultural tensions that need attention. Using censorship to suppress student speech is exactly the wrong thing to do in this kind of situation. While the school superintendent did make a statement reaffirming the school district's support for students' speech rights, it's also important that the Live Oak teachers and administrators use this incident as an opportunity to teach students tolerance, diversity and mutual respect.

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