A situation like what recently occurred on the grounds of Plum High School showcases that the issue of First Amendment rights of students is still very much an ongoing debate. In the case, students found themselves in trouble due to a classmate allegedly finding offense to the wearing of the Confederate battle flag on their clothing attire (I say alleged because it is only the father of the student in question who stated this point…whether that is really the case or being made up by the parent for attention isn’t clear). This follows a conventional feeling by many that the flag should be banned due to it representing racial division and segregation. Is such a thing the case?
As a public institution, Plum High School is beholden to upholding the Bill of Rights…and can only get out of such if an expression disrupts school discipline or the rights of others. Previous SCOTUS cases starting from the Tinker decision have followed that trajectory. By itself, it isn’t apparent how that existed in this case. Only one student felt that she was offended by someone having a hoodie with the flag on it. No actual harassment or force was enacted upon the student in question or anyone else. The Confederate battle flag, as any symbolic object, has no inherent meaning unto itself. Like any flag, it is merely a piece of cloth that people of various persuasions define different ideas onto. Many conceive of it as a symbol of hatred and racism, but others see it as a symbol of states’ rights…Southern identity…or even simply like the way the flag aesthetically looks. None of these feelings or impressions are more right or wrong than the others, so it is disgraceful of school administrators to basically promote viewpoint discrimination in their manners of discipline.
By demonstrating one belief or opinion as the only valid one misrepresents the full expression of what something is, as well as encouraging further offense. This is no different to the similar situation from a few years ago when George Washington University administrators suspended a Jewish student who showcased an Indian swastika…promoting the viewpoint that such a symbol was of Nazi sentiment despite the fact that cultures in South Asia have seen the swastika as a symbol of good luck. The university fortunately realized their error and rescinded their suspension (https://www.thefire.org/cases/george-washington-university-jewish-student-suspended-for-displaying-souvenir-indian-swastika/; https://www.americanbazaaronline.com/2015/05/28/george-washington-university-rescinds-suspension-of-jewish-student-who-displayed-the-hindu-swastika-symbol/). However, the point still holds that in a rush to defend supposed victims, university administrators actually promoted one group’s view of an object over another.
Perhaps school officials shouldn’t be so quick to remove expression that is not obscene in and of itself (this isn’t something like a t-shirt with “Death to immigrants/blacks/gays/etc.” written on it), especially when they are tasked with upholding the rights of students to peacefully express themselves. A better lesson would have been to impart upon students the ability to understand and realize that expressions are more multi-faceted that they might believe (whether it is wearing or burning a flag, or any other kind of symbol), and that mere offense comes from confusion or misunderstanding brought upon by not seeing that. This would go a long way to preparing students for the diverse world that awaits them beyond the classroom.