Father hopes Supreme Court will take son’s Confederate flag case

Wednesday, July 26, 2000

Terry West hopes the U.S. Supreme Court will hear the First Amendment
challenge to his son T.J.’s suspension for drawing a picture of the Confederate
flag in school.

West sued the Derby (Kan.) Unified School District in federal court in
May 1998 on behalf of his 13-year-old son, after the boy was suspended from
Derby Middle School for three days in April for violating the school district’s
“racial harassment or intimidation” policy.

Both a federal district court and federal appeals court sided with the
school district, ruling that T.J.’s First Amendment rights were not violated.

“I’m optimistic the U.S. Supreme Court will take the case because
there are so many controversies swirling around the Confederate flag these
days, including the situation in South Carolina,” West said.

In siding with the school district, West said, the lower courts defied
two Supreme Court rulings:
1969 decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Indep.
Community School Dist.
and the 1984 decision in
Texas v. Johnson.

In Tinker, the Supreme
Court ruled that public school officials violated the First Amendment rights of
several students when they suspended them for wearing black armbands in protest
of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. In Texas v.
, the high court ruled that burning the American flag was
a form of symbolic speech meriting some First Amendment protection.

“In Tinker, the court said that children do possess First Amendment
rights in school,” West said. “And in Texas v. Johnson, the court said that the
state or federal government has no business defining symbols for us.”

Both U.S. District Judge Wesley Brown and a three-judge panel of the
10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that school district officials could
reasonably forecast that the flag would violate the school district’s racial
harassment policy.

That policy provides that no student can “wear or have in their
possession any written material, either printed or in their own handwriting,
that is racially divisive or creates ill will or hatred.”

Both West and his son insist that T.J. did not harass or intend to
harass anyone by drawing a picture of the flag in math class. In fact, the
school district never disputed the Wests’ claims.

However, the school district insists that the Confederate flag is a
racially divisive symbol that must be banned. Terry West disagrees.

“Before this situation, I had never heard of the flag as a symbol of
hate,” he says. “To me the flag has represented heritage and individualism.”

T.J. said he was confused by the hubbub caused by his drawing. “It was
just not that big a deal,” he said.

“The decisions of the lower courts basically allow school officials to
trample all over kids’ First Amendment rights,” West said. “When they suspended
my son for this, I was outraged and decided that I had had enough.

“There can be abuses of the First Amendment and the freedom of speech,
such as yelling fire in a crowded theatre,” West says, referring to the famous
metaphor of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.

“First Amendment rights — and constitutional rights in general
— are fragile in this country,” the father said. “Everyday someone is
chipping away at our rights.”

West says he hopes that the Supreme Court will stop this curtailment
of individual liberty. T.J. agrees, saying: “This is pretty important.”

Tags: ,