North Carolina high school forbids Confederate flag clothing

Friday, May 22, 1998

A 15 year-old student at Concord High School in Concord, N.C., has been told not to wear a racing patch on her backpack at school, because the patch contains a Confederate battle flag.

Katie Knight, who received an A on a paper discussing the constitutional right to fly the Confederate flag, was apparently told by a teacher Monday that the symbol was inappropriate.

“I'm being told I'm not allowed to be proud of my heritage,” Knight said. “I don't care if it's against school policy. It's a violation of my First Amendment right.”

According to a statement released by Superintendent Dr. Harold Winkler, Principal Sonny Pruette determined, based on his knowledge of the student body and concern about race relations, that the Confederate flag would likely create a disruption of the educational environment.

Pruette said that he “was familiar with the Tinker case” and with some of the cases dealing with Confederate flag clothing in schools. “I realize that cases have come down on each side of this issue. But we do believe this would create a disruption.”

Under the landmark 1969 U.S. Supreme Court First Amendment case of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District, school officials cannot censor student expression unless the expression creates a substantial disruption or material interference with the educational process or violates the rights of others.

Winkler concluded in his statement: “All students are free to hold their own viewpoints, even when they are contrary to those of the Board, and, within limits, to express those views in the school setting. However, the right of students to express those viewpoints at school is limited by the rights of all to be able to learn in a safe, non-disruptive environment which is free from fights and arguments provoked by symbols of intolerance and racial hatred.”

A recent federal court decision in South Carolina found that school officials could prohibit the wearing of Confederate flag clothing because of “several incidents of racial tension.” According to the court, “school officials are not required to wait until disorder or invasion occurs” but only need “the existence of facts which might reasonably lead school officials to forecast substantial disruption.”

Deborah Ross, executive director of the North Carolina ACLU, said: “In order to meet the Tinker standard, there has to be an imminent disruption. There just can't be a belief that a lot of people will be upset by the expression. If there have been prior incidents in which the identical expression created disruption, that might be enough.”

Ross also said that the wearing of the patch does not meet the “invade the rights of others” standard of Tinker. “The patch does not invade the rights of others, because it doesn't rise to the level of a threat and it is not harassment directed at a particular person.”

—The Associated Press contributed to this report.