A San Francisco federal appeals court will weigh a case Thursday that claims one Northern California high school went against students' rights to free speech when they were banned from wearing t-shirts bearing the American flag on Cinco de Mayo.
The suit began in 2010, after Live Oak High School in Morgan Hill, a town located south of San Jose, was hit with a wave of gang issues and racial tensions when three students went to class wearing American Flag t-shirts on the commemorative holiday celebrated by some people of Mexican descent.
According to the Gazette Times, threatening verbal exchanges and some physical incidents occurred on Cinco de Mayo the year before - when administrators caught wind of the fact that the American flag clothing could have been the issue, they instructed the students to turn their shirts inside out, or go home. The pupils decided to take the latter option, and the event incited a nationwide argument over whether the teens' rights were jeopardized by the administration. News crews camped outside Live Oak for days while political buffs in the media debated on First Amendment rights.
The three students wearing flag t-shirts have graduated since the event, but on Thursday, a federal appeals court will bring the lawsuit back into consideration, looking at whether the school disregarded the students' rights to free speech and equal protection.
In December 2011, a lower court waved away the students' lawsuit, giving school officials the right to take action that ensures the safety and effective operation of their campuses, according to the Gazette Times. Retired Chief Judge James Ware stated that "our Constitution grants public school children only limited First Amendment rights when they enter the schoolhouse gates," at the time.
University of California, Los Angeles law professor Eugene Volokh told the Gazette Times that forcing the kids to turn their shirts inside out was a "heckler's veto." The Constitutional rights apply in public, but not on campus.
"A school may restrict a student's speech to prevent unruly disruptions," Volokh said, while noting that sometimes, school officials can go overboard. "The fact of the matter is that these Americans were punished for wearing the American flag at an American school."