Calif. students sue over U.S. flag-clothing flap

Sunday, June 27, 2010

MORGAN HILL, Calif. — The families of three students at a California high school who were ordered to remove clothing with the U.S. flag on Cinco de Mayo are suing the school district.

The lawsuit was filed June 23 in U.S. District Court in San Jose. The lawsuit claims school officials at Live Oak High School in Morgan Hill violated the students' rights to freedom of speech, due process and equal protection.

The students said Assistant Principal Miguel Rodriguez told them to remove their T-shirts or turn them inside out on May 5, because wearing them on the Mexican holiday of Cinco de Mayo was incendiary.

According to the lawsuit, two of the three defendants wore the shirts for approximately three hours, without incident, before the school officials told them their shirts were inappropriate. (The third student arrived at school about an hour before the officials approached them.) Students with Mexican flags and clothing with pro-Mexican messages, meanwhile, were not asked to do the same. The boys, who are part Latino, called their parents as they were escorted to the principal’s office.

On May 6, Superintendent Wesley Smith recorded a message that went out to parents via the automated telephone system: “The Morgan Hill Unified School District does not prohibit nor do we discourage wearing patriotic clothing. The incident on May 5 at Live Oak High School is extremely unfortunate. While campus safety is our primary concern and administrators made decisions yesterday in an attempt to ensure campus safety, students should not, and will not, be disciplined for wearing patriotic clothing. This situation and our response are under review.”

The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages against the Morgan Hill Unified School District.

A district spokeswoman told the Associated Press that she hadn’t received notice of the suit and couldn’t comment.

The mother of one of the boys, Joy Jones, was quoted by the The Mercury News as saying: “It’s about our First Amendment rights. We started talking about a lawsuit from Day No. 1.”

Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition in San Raphael, told the San Jose newspaper that school administrators shouldn’t have barred the students’ shirts without evidence of pending disruption or violence. But he questioned whether a lawsuit was necessary after the district acknowledged its mistake.

Jones told the newspaper that none of the boys received a separate apology from the district. “We would have appreciated it,” she was quoted as saying.

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