In a case almost as bizarre as that of the Modesto, Calif., kid who was barred from handing out free copies of the Constitution, an appeals court has ruled that a school district in another central California community was right to ban a trio of students in 2010 from wearing T-shirts that feature the American flag.
The case, Dariano v. Morgan Hill Unified School District, centered on three students who showed up to Live Oak High school on May 5, 2010 — yes, that’s Cinco De Mayo — wearing American flag T-shirts. Some of the students at the school welcomed them with threats of violence, and school administrators elected to order the students wearing the T-shirts to turn them inside out, or to go home for the day with excused absences. School officials did not think to resolve the threats by ordering the offending students to stop making them.
There was a definite component of nationalism/racism/tribalism to the underlying circumstances motivating both the flag-wearers and their bullies, and, from the case itself, it appears that both parties were primed for conflict well before anyone decided to don an American flag T-shirt and wear it to school:
This case arose out of the events of May 5, 2010, Cinco de Mayo, at Live Oak High School (“Live Oak” or “the School”), part of the Morgan Hill Unified School District in Northern California. The Cinco de Mayo celebration was presented in the “spirit of cultural appreciation.” It was described as honoring “the pride and community strength of the Mexican people who settled this valley and who continue to work here.” The school likened it to St. Patrick’s Day or Oktoberfest. The material facts are not in dispute.
Live Oak had a history of violence among students, some gang-related and some drawn along racial lines. In the six years that Nick Boden served as principal, he observed at least thirty fights on campus, both between gangs and between Caucasian and Hispanic students. A police officer is stationed on campus every day to ensure safety on school grounds.
On Cinco de Mayo in 2009, a year before the events relevant to this appeal, there was an altercation on campus between a group of predominantly Caucasian students and a group of Mexican students. The groups exchanged profanities and threats. Some students hung a makeshift American flag on one of the trees on campus, and as they did, the group of Caucasian students began clapping and chanting “USA.” A group of Mexican students had been walking around with the Mexican flag, and in response to the white students’ flag-raising, one Mexican student shouted “f*** them white boys, f*** them white boys.” When Assistant Principal Miguel Rodriguez told the student to stop using profane language, the student said, “But Rodriguez, they are racist. They are being racist. F*** them white boys. Let’s f*** them up.” Rodriguez removed the student from the area.
At least one party to this appeal, student M.D., wore American flag clothing to school on Cinco de Mayo 2009. M.D. was approached by a male student who, in the words of the district court, “shoved a Mexican flag at him and said something in Spanish expressing anger at [M.D.’S] clothing.”
A year later, on Cinco de Mayo 2010, a group of Caucasian students, including the students bringing this appeal, wore American flag shirts to school. A female student approached M.D. that morning, motioned to his shirt, and asked, “Why are you wearing that? Do you not like Mexicans[?]” D.G. and D.M. were also confronted about their clothing before “brunch break.”
As Rodriguez was leaving his office before brunch break, a Caucasian student approached him, and said, “You may want to go out to the quad area. There might be some–there might be some issues.” During the break, another student called Rodriguez over to a group of Mexican students, said that she was concerned about a group of students wearing the American flag, and said that “there might be problems.” Rodriguez understood her to mean that there might be a physical altercation. A group of Mexican students asked Rodriguez why the Caucasian students “get to wear their flag out when we [sic] don’t get to wear our [sic] flag?”
Boden directed Rodriguez to have the students either turn their shirts inside out or take them off. The students refused to do so.
Rodriguez met with the students and explained that he was concerned for their safety. The students did not dispute that their attire put them at risk of violence. Plaintiff D.M. said that he was “willing to take on that responsibility” in order to continue wearing his shirt. Two of the students, M.D. and D.G., said they would have worn the flag clothing even if they had known violence would be directed toward them.
School officials permitted M.D. and another student not a party to this action to return to class, because Boden considered their shirts, whose imagery was less “prominent,” to be “less likely [to get them] singled out, targeted for any possible recrimination,” and “significant[ly] differen[t] in [terms of] what [he] saw as being potential for targeting.”
The officials offered the remaining students the choice either to turn their shirts inside out or to go home for the day with excused absences that would not count against their attendance records. Students D.M. and D.G. chose to go home. Neither was disciplined.
In the aftermath of the students’ departure from school, they received numerous threats from other students. D.G. was threatened by text message on May 6, and the same afternoon, received a threatening phone call from a caller saying he was outside of D.G.’s home. D.M. and M.D. were likewise threatened with violence, and a student at Live Oak overheard a group of classmates saying that some gang members would come down from San Jose to “take care of” the students. Because of these threats, the students did not go to school on May 7.
Following a precedent set by a 1969 case in which the Supreme Court ruled that students’ rights in schools can be limited in situations that present the potential for disruption or interference, the California 9th Circuit ruled that the school administrators in this case acted appropriately by telling the students not to display the American flag on their clothing.
Eugene Volokh acknowledged in his new blog at The Washington Post that the 1969 precedent allowed for the 9th Circuit’s interpretation. But, he added, the decision in favor of the bullies represents “a classic ‘heckler’s veto.’”
This is a classic “heckler’s veto” — thugs threatening to attack the speaker, and government officials suppressing the speech to prevent such violence. “Heckler’s vetoes” are generally not allowed under First Amendment law; the government should generally protect the speaker and threaten to arrest the thugs, not suppress the speaker’s speech.
… Somehow, we’ve reached the point that students can’t safely display the American flag in an American school, because of a fear that other students will attack them for it — and the school feels unable to prevent such attacks (by punishing the threateners and the attackers, and by teaching students tolerance for other students’ speech). Something is badly wrong, whether such an incident happens on May 5 or any other day.
And this is especially so because behavior that gets rewarded gets repeated. The school taught its students a simple lesson: If you dislike speech and want it suppressed, then you can get what you want by threatening violence against the speakers. The school will cave in, the speakers will be shut up, and you and your ideology will win. When thuggery pays, the result is more thuggery. Is that the education we want our students to be getting?