Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


One for Dixie

By Shawn Healy
In this era of constant conflict between student wardrobes and school dress codes, clothing that crosses the line of demarcation is a point of contestation. At the Freedom Museum our introductory film explores a standoff at Homewood-Flossmoor (IL) High School where the principal set aside a single day for students to show their allegiances in the gay rights debate. While students subscribing to or sympathizing with the Gay-Straight Alliance wore t-shirts that read, "Gay: Fine By Me," opponents wore their own with the words "Crimes Against God." The t-shirts themselves are on display on the second floor of the museum in our permanent exhibit.

A California student was disciplined for wearing a similar t-shirt to school as the anti-gay group at Homewood-Flossmoor, and the 9th District Court of Appeals upheld the suspension on the grounds that the words could create a harmful environment for homosexual students and their sympathisers. This seemingly runs counter to the same court's ruling in the Bong Hits 4 Jesus case heard by the Supreme Court this term (decision pending), where the Tinker standard upholding student speech rights at the schoolhouse gate was applied in both cases. The caveat here is the "material and substantial" disruption exception of Tinker applied in the first case.

This brings us to the topic of today's discussion, namely, whether or not students who wear clothing adorned with the Confederate Flag constitute "material and substantial disruptions" as a result of their wardrobe. Leaving debates about Southern heritage and symbols of slavery aside, the key issue in a recent West Virginia case (and a series of others across the country) was whether the school implicated in the suit had a history of racial tensions. Hurricane High School in Putnam County, WV, apparently doesn't, and the right of senior Franklin Bragg to wear t-shirts and a belt buckle with the Confederate Flag thus protected by Tinker according to a federal judge.

While I do not quarrel with the outcome of the case, I am perplexed by the rationale used to arrive at such a conclusion. What constitutes evidence of racial tensions? How recent need such instances be to trigger a constitutional clothing ban? What if wearing clothing adorned by the Confederate Flag ignites racial unrest? Need the connection be direct? While I eagerly await word from the Supreme Court on the current state of student speech, I am skeptical that their pending decision will shed further light on these questions. Unless the high court continues to enter the student speech arena, a local and regional patchwork of inconsistency will remain the likely result in this realm.


Blogger Douglas said...

If the State controls the speech on religious issues, does this not cross the line of separation between Church and State? Regardless of your point of view, if the speech around an issue is controlled in the spirit of separation then the debate becomes one sided an skewed.

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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at