Supreme Court Rejects American Flag Student Speech Case

A March 12, 2015 photo shows the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC.

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

The U.S. Supreme Court rejected an appeal from white high school students who sued after an assistant principal asked them to turn their American flag T-shirts inside-out to prevent fights from breaking out on Cinco de Mayo.

The justices left intact a lower court ruling that said officials at Live Oak High School in northern California had justifiable safety concerns and didn’t violate the students’ free speech rights.

The case tested what has proven to be a tricky balance between school security and the First Amendment. Live Oak officials said they had reason to worry about ethnic and gang violence at the school-sanctioned Cinco de Mayo celebration in 2010. The suing students said they shouldn’t pay the price for the possibility that others would react negatively toward their clothing.

A year earlier Cinco de Mayo, which celebrates Mexican culture, was marred at the school by an altercation between white and Hispanic students over the display of an American flag. The school’s assistant principal, Miguel Rodriguez, acted in 2010 after hearing from students that more trouble was brewing.

School officials met with five students who were wearing American flags on their clothing, along with their parents. Two were allowed to return to class because their flags weren’t prominent. Three chose to go home for the day rather than turn their shirts inside-out.

Parents of three of the students -- Matt Dariano, Dominic Maciel and Daniel Galli -- later sued.

Student Safety

In dismissing the suit, a three-judge panel of a San Francisco-based federal appeals court said the response by school officials was “tailored to avert violence and focused on student safety.”

The ruling prompted another judge on that court, Diarmuid O’Scannlain, to call for reconsideration. He said the ruling was “condoning the suppression of free speech by some students because other students might have reacted violently.”

Although the Supreme Court ruled in 1969 that free speech rights don’t evaporate “at the schoolhouse gate,” later rulings have said students don’t always get the same protections that adults enjoy.

In a 2007 case involving a student who hoisted a banner declaring “Bong Hits 4 Jesus,” the court said schools have broad power to curtail expression that might undermine their anti-drug messages.

The case is Dariano v. Morgan Hill Unified School District, 14-720.

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