Thursday, May 06, 2010

Flag semiotics and the First Amendment at school 

An American public school sent home some kids yesterday for wearing American flags on Cinco de Mayo. The school administration deemed the flag "incendiary," because it might provoke violence from nationalistic Mexican or Mexican-American students at the school. There were numerous kids at the school showing the Mexican flag or wearing its colors, so the suppression of the Star Spangled Banner is a clear case of government censorship because of content, a slam-dunk violation of the First Amendment.

There will be those who say that this needed to be done to "protect the children." False. The school's decision is not only unconstitutional and unlawful, it confers enormous power on the people who implicitly or explicitly threaten the violence. When the government "protects" the speakers from the mob by silencing them, it is effectively surrendering its authority to the mob. If the school was genuinely concerned about the children, it needed more parent volunteers, security dudes, cops, or the National Guard. They are the only protection that speakers ever need.

Apparently it needs to be said again: Freedom of speech only matters for people who say things that, well, anger the mob (which history teaches is actually led by the government more often than not). People who say popular non-"incendiary" things do not need any protection from anybody. So if a government school -- of all places -- is unwilling to defend students who simply wear their country's flag, then the First Amendment is a dead letter.

Yes, the school administrators who made this decision should be fired, and replaced by people who understand their job.

There are two more pedagogical points that ought to be made.

First, what is the lesson this school taught its students, Anglo and Mexican alike? That the best way to shut down opinions you do not like is by intimidating the speakers, or -- worse -- by intimidating people who have power over the speakers. This attitude undermines our democracy and corrodes our civil society, and would seem contrary to the main surviving justification for government schools.

Second, the whole exchange exposes a transporting ignorance of Cinco de Mayo. I could almost understand if these kids were wearing French flags. That would be obviously provocative for any number of reasons. Perhaps the school should have diffused the incipient anti-t-shirt riot by convening an assembly and actually teaching the history of the day. Along with "stick and stones may break my bones, but flags will never hurt me."

CWCID: Glenn Reynolds.


By Anonymous sirius_sir, at Thu May 06, 11:09:00 AM:

If only they had worn t-shirts that said, La Raza.

No one could object to that.  

By Anonymous Arthurmich, at Thu May 06, 11:33:00 AM:

"transporting ignorance of Cinco de Mayo"? that's a phrase Ive not heard before. Of course Jack, while we disagree on many things, this is NOT one of them. I'm not sure I'd fire the administrators but they sure need a trip to the woodshed.  

By Blogger Escort81, at Thu May 06, 12:00:00 PM:

The link to gillroydispatch.com isn't loading and must be swamped with hits.

Not on point, but more about "what were they thinking?": I guess I don't understand why the administrators would believe that the t-shirts were "incendiary" and would likely provoke violence, and not merely provocative. Doesn't that represent an inherently prejudiced attitude toward the Mexican-American students, treating them as if they were Islamist radicals and the t-shirts had satiric depictions of Mohammed (a la the recent Comedy Central / South Park issue)?

Were they worried the colors of the stars and stripes would be mistaken for those of the French flag, carried by the French army on May 5, 1862? Does this mean no flag t-shirts or flag pins can be worn on St. Patrick's Day? What about V-E Day, don't want to offend Germans, I suppose? (My late father, who had a U-boat torpedo go right under his U.S. Navy warship about 60 days before V-E Day, believed that most Germans "would rather fight than f*ck.")

I really would like to hear the point of view of the school administrators. If it is a majority Hispanic school, and this was an episode that had been building over time to a head, likely violent and gang-related, and the school had no resources with which to hire additional security, I can understand that the response was kind of a last resort, and still a violation of the First Amendment.

Recall that schools do have the ability to regulate content on t-shirts, though it is very sad that the Stars and Stripes gets wrongly lumped together with profanity/obscenity in this instance.  

By Blogger Neil Sinhababu, at Thu May 06, 02:16:00 PM:

In general, I'd like it if high school administrators were a lot more permissive about t-shirt content.  

By Blogger Escort81, at Thu May 06, 02:34:00 PM:

OK, now I can get the link to load. This is pretty bad.

Five Live Oak High School students' First Amendment rights were challenged Wednesday morning when they were asked to leave school because they donned American flag T-shirts on Cinco de Mayo. Officials at the school chose not to comment on the situation, but one student said an official called the T-shirts "incendiary."
"They said we were starting a fight, we were fuel to the fire," said sophomore Matt Dariano.

The Morgan Hill Unified School District issued this statement: "In an attempt to foster a spirit of cultural awareness and maintain a safe and supportive school environment, the Live Oak High School administration took certain actions earlier today. The district does not concur with the Live Oak High School administration's interpretation of either board or district policy related to these actions."

The five teens were sitting at a table outside during their brunch break about 10:10 a.m. when Assistant Principal Miguel Rodriguez asked two boys to take off their American flag bandannas. The boys said they complied. In the same conversation, sophomore Dominic Maciel said, Rodriguez told the group to "walk with him to the office."

Dariano called his mother Diana, who spread the word to the other parents, who all arrived soon after to have a conference with Rodriguez and Principal Nick Boden. The group said they were not instigating anything and did what they always do at break - sit and talk and eat.

The boys were told they must turn their T-shirts inside-out or be sent home - and that it would not be considered a suspension - but that Rodriguez did not want any fights to break out among Mexican-American students and those wearing American flags. Dariano said other students were wearing American flags but since they were a group of five "we were the easiest target to cause trouble" according to Rodriguez, he said.

Good for the district for indicating that it does not support the actions of the school administration.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Thu May 06, 02:44:00 PM:

Let's check back on Independence Day to see if anyone with a Mexican flag shirt gets tossed out of school.

I think there's a better than even chance someone will show up in a Mexican flag shirt and no chance at all that they will be sent home.

PS. The official national symbol of MEChA is an eagle holding a machete-like weapon and a stick of dynamite.  

By Anonymous feeblemind, at Thu May 06, 03:06:00 PM:

What would have happened to Mexican kids wearing the stars and stripes? Would they have been sent home too?  

By Blogger Buku, at Thu May 06, 03:40:00 PM:

I can see November from my School.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Thu May 06, 03:57:00 PM:

See you in September.  

By Blogger Bomber Girl, at Thu May 06, 05:57:00 PM:

Well, a sad day for America and education. That said, it would be interesting to hear the back story that led to such a decision since it was clearly a chance to have one of those "teachable moments". As someone who works in a school, I can respect a concern for student safety - it is of utmost concern. But as TH indicated, there are ways to manage that, particularly in this sort of situation which most likely had some history.  

By Blogger JPMcT, at Thu May 06, 09:07:00 PM:

It's heartening that there actually exist American high school students that know what our flag looks like!  

By Blogger Cas, at Fri May 07, 05:06:00 PM:

Hey, Anonymous @ 02:44:00 PM:
Do YOUR kids go to school on Independence Day?
Not only is it a Federal Holiday, Live Oak High School in Morgan Hill, CA, doesn't conduct regular classes in July.
So, (unless the students in question need summer school), they won't be ATTENDING school in July, much less be expelled for wearing the Mexican (or any other flag) on their T-Shirts!  

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