A federal appeals court in Northern California is debating whether or not to reopen a case that triggered racial tension and sparked debates about patriotism and free speech throughout the state in 2010. The initial lawsuit came from the parents of three high school students attending Live Oak High School in Morgan Hill, CA, a town near San Jose. The students had shown up to school on Cinco De Mayo wearing shirts that displayed the American flag, and they were quickly told by school administration to either turn their t-shirts inside-out or go home. When they chose the latter option, their parents sued for a Constitutional violation of First Amendment rights.
The case was initially thrown out by the lower courts, who argued that the school had a right to protect the safety of its students. School administrators claimed that the school had been experiencing gang violence as well as racial tension between Hispanic and non-Hispanic students, and that the students’ shirts threatened to cause unnecessary issues.
A three-judge panel is now revisiting the issue, AP reports.
A major question at stake is whether or not a display of patriotism on American soil can be considered offensive and dangerous. Other schools in the past that have struggled with gang violence have banned or attempted to ban certain colors of clothing (by not allowing students to dress in all red, for example, because of the color’s connection to gang activity), but few have questioned whether the nation's flag can be treated in a similar fashion.
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While the fact that three students deliberately wore American flag t-shirts on the day of Cinco De Mayo celebrations at the school certainly suggests that they were aiming for some sort of provocation, the school was still limiting their freedom of expression. Whether or not that freedom can be sacrificed within the school in order to protect the overall safety of the students is up for the courts to decide.
The three students involved in the case have since graduated from the high school.