West Virginia School Officials Violated Student's Rights By Punishing Him Over a T-Shirt, Court Rules

June 1, 2005 12:00 am

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CHARLESTON, WV — A federal court today found that school officials violated a high school student’s rights when they disciplined him for wearing a t-shirt bearing an image of the Confederate flag. The ruling comes in response to a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia.

“The court recognized that allowing some expressions of political speech by students while banning others is a flagrant violation of the First Amendment,” said ACLU of West Virginia Executive Director Andrew Schneider. “We hope that the school district will use this as an opportunity to teach students about their constitutional rights and encourage debate over future controversial subjects before resorting to censorship.”

Franklin Bragg, an 18-year-old senior at Hurricane High School, was born and raised in the Teays Valley area. When he appeared at school in November wearing a t-shirt bearing an image of what he refers to as the “rebel flag,” he was disciplined for violating the school’s dress code. Although Bragg said he wore the t-shirt to express pride in his Southern heritage, he was told that he could not wear a depiction of the flag because some people were offended by it. According to Bragg, however, other students often wear clothing expressing a variety of political and cultural viewpoints without incident, and no students had made any comments about his t-shirt.

In today’s ruling, United States District Judge John T. Copenhaver, Jr. struck down the school policy that bans a student from wearing an image of the Confederate flag, stating that, “to suggest a ban is warranted simply because some associate it with racism proves too much for First Amendment purposes.”

In his opinion, Judge Copenhaver cited the famous 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines case, which was brought by the ACLU of Iowa. In that case, the United States Supreme Court ruled that students had a right to wear black armbands to school in protest of the Vietnam War.

ACLU affiliates across the country have successfully defended students who have been punished for wearing t-shirts that school officials deemed “inappropriate,” including t-shirts bearing anti-war, gay pride or Christian messages.

In addition to overturning the flag ban, today’s court order requires that the disciplinary action be expunged from Bragg’s record. The court also noted that if the flag is used in the school in the future “as a tool for disruption, intimidation, or trampling upon the rights of others,” then a ban on the flag might be entirely appropriate.

Bragg is represented by ACLU of West Virginia cooperating attorney Roger Forman and ACLU staff attorney Terri Baur.

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