A Stanislaus County school is forcing a student to take an American flag off of his bike. Thirteen-year-old Cody Alicea put the flag there as a show of support for the veterans in his family. But officials at Denair Middle School told him he couldn't fly it. He said he was told some students had complained. So now the eighth-grader folds up the flag and puts it in his backpack while he is in class. His father, Robert Kisner, said his son should not have to put the flag away. "He's got that flag on his bike because he's proud of where he comes from," Kisner said. But the superintendent said he's trying to avoid tension on campus. "(The) First Amendment is important," Superintendent Edward Parraz said. "We want the kids to respect it, understand it, and with that comes a responsiblity."
Under the 1969 U.S. Supreme Court ruling Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, school officials can prohibit student expression if they can reasonably forecast that the speech or display will cause a substantial disruption.
But something is wrong with this Denair picture. The school administration apparently reasoned that because of some racial tension in the past stemming from Mexican flags displayed at school on Cinco de Mayo, it could ban the American flag. Yet other parts of the Tinker ruling should give officials pause before they engage in heavy-handed censorship. The Court proclaimed in Tinker: “But, in our system, undifferentiated fear or apprehension of disturbance is not enough to overcome the right to freedom of expression.”
Schools facing tensions over cultural differences can teach all students that disruptions over displays such as flags on bikes or backpacks will not be tolerated - rather than banning the expression.
Parraz was even quoted as saying that the "First Amendment is important," even as school officials proceed to ban Alicea's flag.
Let's hope this and other schools will show justifiable reasons before silencing student speech on the basis of "undifferentiated fear.”