Students returning to school in South Carolina’s Charleston County may not wear T-shirts, belt buckles or other apparel displaying the Confederate battle flag, a divisive symbol of the South’s pro-slavery legacy to many, officials said on Tuesday.
The ban in the district, where nine black churchgoers were shot dead earlier this summer, runs counter to policies at other schools across the U.S. South requiring them to defer to the free speech rights of students.
A district outside Nashville, Tennessee, for example, said it could do nothing about a parent’s complaint last week about the Confederate battle flags flying from student vehicles in a high school parking lot. Since there was no classroom disturbance, the flags were deemed a valid expression of political speech.
“There really isn’t a national rule that says ‘yes’ or ‘no,'” said Francisco Negron, general counsel at the National School Boards Association. “It isn’t about regulating the speech but about maintaining the order in the school.”
The Charleston massacre, which prosecutors say was carried out by a white man photographed posing with the Confederate flag, has galvanized opponents of its display. The shooting prompted South Carolina to remove the banner from its statehouse grounds, where it had flown for more than a half century, and sparked a nationwide debate over the flag’s symbolism.
Schools have been grappling with the display of the Confederate flag, and other controversial images, for years, Negron pointed out. While the flag is to many a hated symbol of slavery and racism, it remains a symbol of Southern pride and heritage to others.
Charleston County schools decided to ban it “in light of a year marred with racially divisive and tragic events,” said schools spokesman Daniel Head in a statement.
Courts have held that schools generally should not restrict students’ rights to free speech under the U.S. Constitution unless it is likely to disrupt learning, Negron said.
The U.S. Supreme Court helped to establish today’s standards in a 1969 decision, Tinker v. the Des Moines Independent Community School District, deciding for students who wore black arm bands to protest the Vietnam War.
Racial tensions had flared in Charleston schools long before the church shootings and remain an ongoing concern in the district.
In Tennessee, however, officials say race has not been a recent issue in Rutherford County Schools, serving about 42,000 students in a fast-growing suburb of Nashville.
District attorneys advised against taking action when a parent complained during the first week of the school year about the Confederate flags waving from vehicles driven by students at Stewarts Creek High School, said schools spokesman James Evans.
“Students are allowed to express their political views even if we don’t agree with them,” he said.
Yet after the district received national attention, the students began voluntarily taking down the flags, according to Evans, who added that by Tuesday, none were still flying.