By John W. Whitehead
Well I know what’s right, I got just one life
In a world that keeps on pushin’ me around
But I’ll stand my ground and I won’t back down.
—Tom Petty, “I Won’t Back Down”
In our politically correct culture, there’s a lot about Kenneth Webber, a self-proclaimed American redneck, that some might take issue with. However, it’s the 3-by-5-foot Confederate Redneck flag adorning his Dodge truck that has gotten the 28-year-old school bus driver in trouble—and all because a school official who happened to see it was afraid that it “might” offend someone.
A man who prefers the back woods to the big city, Webber is a walking billboard for the things he believes in: God, family, freedom, country and the redneck way of life. He doesn’t even have to say a word about his views. His tattoos, which cover most of his arms, say it all. On his right arm, Webber proudly displays the American flag, bordered by a tattoo of ripped skin, and the words “100% American” —a sign, says Webber, that “being American is not just skin deep, I’m American all the way through.” A mirror image tattoo dominates his left arm, but with the Confederate flag revealed by the torn skin and the words “pure redneck.”
In addition to the tattoos proclaiming his love of country and redneck-ism, the 28-year-old Oregon resident has also adorned himself with heart tattoos for each of his four kids, an image of God’s hands holding the cross, with the words “Jesus died for us,” and an image of two handcuffed fists with the chain snapped in the middle, capped by the words “finally free.”
Put all the messages together, and they add up to what Webber describes as “a backyard redneck. I work for what I have. I support my family. It's just who I am. It's a way of life.” Unfortunately, that way of life was severely jarred after Webber was fired on March 8, 2011, for refusing to remove the Confederate Redneck flag from his truck.
Webber has worked for First Student Bus Transportation Services since June 2007. Every school day, Webber dutifully drives his truck to work and parks it in the employee lot, which is leased from the school district. He then reports to work and picks up the school bus for his K-12 route.
School bus drivers are often the first “school official” a child encounters in the morning and the last at night, and Webber does his best to make sure that parents know he’s looking out for his young charges. Over the course of a day’s run, Webber transports between 70-80 kids between home and school. It’s a job he loves, and one that seems well suited to him, given his interest in working with troubled kids someday. Despite the fact that he is adorned with tattoos, some of which clearly proclaim him to be a redneck and one in particular that depicts the Confederate flag, Webber, who is in constant contact with students, has never been asked to cover up for fear that he might be considered a racist. In fact, Webber openly says he is not a racist. Hence, the reaction to Webber’s Confederate flag on his truck is completely illogical.
After all, a bright red Confederate flag with the word “Redneck” screaming across it in capital letters is not exactly inconspicuous. And in the year and a half since it’s been on his truck, no one voiced any concerns or complaints to Webber about the flag. (Webber started flying the Confederate Redneck flag from the CB antenna of his truck in July 2009 after receiving it as a birthday present from his dad.) In fact, Webber’s coworkers complimented him on it, remarking that it fit his personality and “made” the truck, which remains parked in the employee lot while he ferries K-12 kids back and forth to school.
That all changed after the school superintendent paid a visit to First Student and noticed Webber’s truck in the parking lot. Voicing the concern that some members of the community might be offended by the flag adorning the parked truck, the superintendent requested that Webber remove the flag. He justified the request by pointing to the fact that the school district is “about 37 percent minority students,” and “we have a policy...about displaying symbols on school property that were racist, or had a potential to be seen as racist.”
On March 2, 2011, Webber was called into his supervisor's office and ordered to remove the flag from his pickup or be suspended from his job. Insisting on his constitutional right to free expression on his personal vehicle, Webber refused the demand, was suspended and was sent home for the day. The following day, Webber reported to work and was again ordered to remove the flag or be suspended, this time for three days. Again, Webber refused and was suspended. On March 8, Webber was fired after he again refused to back down and remove the flag from his pickup.
“My flag will fly,” said Webber. “No one here is gonna tell me what I can and can’t believe in.” As Webber points out, other employees have symbols on their cars that some might consider offensive depending on one’s political or religious views. One person has a bumper sticker supporting the military, another expresses support for gay and lesbian pride, while many others are pro-Obama stickers from 2008. “Those never concerned me because I respect their right to have an opinion,” said Webber. “Live and let live. Let people live their lives as they wish, it’s their right to do so.”
When it comes to political correctness, Webber points out that the high school’s mascot is a pirate, and its pirate flags could certainly be seen as offensive in light of the recent pirate attacks which have claimed the lives of four Americans. “Are they going to remove those flags and that mascot because I’m offended?” asked Webber. “No, but I have to take down my flag that’s not hurting anybody. I might be offended by it, but I’m not asking them to change what they stand for or who they are.”
Ironically, Webber seems to have a better grasp of First Amendment principles than any of his superiors or the school superintendent himself. He’s certainly more enlightened than many of those on both the left and the right of the political spectrum who, spouting the need for “civil discourse,” have largely neutered the First Amendment.
There was a time in this country, back when the British were running things, that if you spoke your mind and it ticked off the wrong people, you’d soon find yourself in jail for offending the king. Reacting to this injustice, when it was time to write the Constitution, the founders argued for a Bill of Rights, of which the First Amendment dealt with the freedom of expression—that is, the right to free speech. James Madison, the father of the Constitution, was very clear about the fact that he wrote the First Amendment to protect the minority against the majority. What Madison meant by minority is “offensive speech.”
Unfortunately, we don’t honor that principle as much as we should today. In fact, we seem to be witnessing an elitist philosophy at play, one shared by both the extreme left and the extreme right, which aims to stifle all expression that doesn’t fit within their parameters of what they consider to be “acceptable” speech. There are all kinds of labels put on such speech—it’s been called politically incorrect speech, hate speech, offensive speech, and so on—but really, the message being conveyed is that you don’t have a right to express yourself if certain people don’t like or agree with what you are saying.
Hence, we have seen the caging of free speech in recent years, through the use of so-called “free speech zones” on college campuses and at political events, the requirement of speech permits in parks and community gatherings, and the policing of online forums. Recently, one man, Harold Hodge, actually got arrested for standing alone in front of the U.S. Supreme Court building on a snowy day wearing a sign voicing his concerns about the government’s disparate treatment of African-Americans and Hispanics.
This elitist, monolithic mindset is at odds with everything America is supposed to stand for. We should want differing opinions in our public schools and in our public life. We should be encouraging people to debate issues and air their views. Instead, by suppressing free speech, we are contributing to a growing underclass of Americans—many of whom have been labeled racists, rednecks and religious bigots—who are being told that they can’t take part in American public life unless they “fit in.”
Yet this is where we go wrong. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that it is “a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment...that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea offensive or disagreeable.” Thus, it is not a question of whether the Confederate flag represents racism but whether banning it leads to even greater problems, namely, the loss of freedom.
Ken Webber insists that he is not a racist, nor was his Confederate Redneck flag intended to be anything more than a statement of pride in his redneck way of life. Yet as much as Webber, who has a wife and four kids to support, wants his job back, he’s not backing down. As he said, “I told my kids, ‘I lost my job because of what I believed in. And I want you guys to understand this: no matter what people tell you, you stand up for what you believe in, you fight for it. If it means a lot to you, you don’t let people push you around.’”