Virginia teen sues school board in flap over Confederate flag

Monday, June 12, 2000

A Virginia high school student suspended for flying a Confederate flag from his truck’s antenna as he entered the school parking lot has filed a federal lawsuit against the Chesapeake School Board.

Alan Lowry, a 16-year-old student at Hickory High School in Chesapeake, Va., was suspended for displaying the flag last March.

School officials claimed Lowry and 10 other youths who displayed flags from their trucks caused a “disruption of the educational process or to the orderly atmosphere for learning.” Lowry was the only one of the youths to sue.

After the principal issued the suspension, Lowry appealed the decision to the school superintendent, who agreed with the punishment. In May, the school officials’ decision was upheld 8-0 by the school board.

On June 2, Lowry sued the school board, contending that school officials violated his First Amendment free-expression rights.

Lowry’s lawsuit — Lowry v. School Board, City of Chesapeake — alleges: “By punishing Alan for exercising his constitutionally protected rights to free speech and to peaceably assemble, … the school board clearly exceeded its authority and abused its discretion.”

In the 1969 decision Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Community School Dist., the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that school officials violated the First Amendment rights of several public school students who wore black armbands to school to protest U.S. involvement in Vietnam. The court ruled that student expression is constitutionally protected unless school officials have a reasonable belief that the expression will cause a substantial disruption of the school environment.

Brandon Zeigler, one of Lowry’s attorneys, said, “Tinker is the test, and the expression in this case did not create a substantial disruption.”

“This is a violation of [Lowry's] First Amendment rights because, regardless of whether the symbol is liked, he has a right to fly this symbol,” he said. “He did not force his views on anyone — unlike a student who communicates a message by wearing a shirt to class that everyone sees while in the classroom.”

The action of the school officials is a First Amendment violation, Zeigler says, because they punished Lowry for the content of his expression.

Moody Stallings, another of Lowry’s attorneys, said: “The real tragedy in this case is that the school board had a golden opportunity to teach about the First Amendment and they failed miserably.”

Calls to the school board’s attorneys were not returned.