Friday, March 7, 2014

Ninth Circuit Upholds School's Suppression of American Flag T-Shirts on Cinco de Mayo Day

One of our recent posts noted the publication of R. George Wright's article, Post-Tinker, 10 Stan. J. Civ. Rts. & Civ. Liberties 1 (January 2014). Considering one of Professor Wright's points-- that we could dispense with Tinker in favor of allowing public schools' to control student speech based on (in part) their responsibility to teach civility and mutual forbearance-- a recent Ninth Circuit case might present a question of if wearing an American flag t-shirt is a breach of civility? In Dariano v. Morgan Hill Unified Sch. Dist., the Ninth Circuit upheld a school official's decision to require high school students wearing t-shirts bearing images of the American flag during a school-sanctioned celebration of Cinco de Mayo to turn the shirts inside out or go home after the school principal learned of threats of violence against the students. During a Northern California school's Cinco de Mayo day, several students wore American flag t-shirts to school, prompting comments from other students who viewed the students' shirts as a slight against Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. A year earlier, there had been threats and obscenities exchanged between a group of predominantly Caucasian students and a group of Latino students when the Caucasian students hung an American flag on a school tree and chanted “USA,” in response to a group of students who had been walking around with a Mexican flag. The day of the flag t-shirt incident a year later, an assistant principal was told that some students were expressing displeasure about the American flag t-shirts. The assistant principal met with the students wearing the U.S. flag shirts and asked them to turn the shirts inside out or remove them, explaining that he was concerned that they may be attacked by students who supported the Cinco de Mayo celebration. The students acknowledged that the shirts might start fights, but refused to take them off. They were sent home with excused absences and stayed home two additional days after receiving threatening text messages. (Two other students were allowed to return to class because the shirts because they were wearing "TapouT," shirts that had a muted version of the U.S. flag.) The students who were sent home sued, alleging that the school violated their rights to freedom of expression, equal protection, and due process. In upholding the district court's grant of summary judgment for the assistant principal, the Ninth Circuit found that given the history of violence at the school, the school officials stopping the display of the t-shirts was a "tailored response" to "anticipated violence or substantial disruption of or material interference with school activities," and therefore the school's response was justified under Tinker. The Ninth Circuit found that the school's response was appropriately tailored under Tinker because while it suppressed the message on the clothing, they students were not punished for it and also allowed students wearing clothing with a less prominent message to wear their shirts. Read Dariano v. Morgan Hill Unified Sch. Disthere

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