In 2010, students at the Northern California Live Oak High School were ordered to turn their American flag T-shirts inside out, take them off or face expulsion. The school was celebrating Cinco de Mayo, a non-federal “holiday” that marks the traditions, culture and achievements of people of Mexican heritage in America. School officials were concerned that the American flag decorated apparel would offend Hispanics, cause an altercation and jeopardize the safety of students at the school. By their actions, the administrators at Live Oak effectively reduced the American flag and flag bearing students to the status of second-class citizen. Now, California’s Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that the administration acted appropriately. Many in America would disagree.
The Live Oak school did have a history of racial tension during previous Cinco de Mayo campus celebrations. Given those tensions, the administration had a perfect opportunity to effectively educate their students on the dangers of discrimination and to reinforce that tolerance is not tolerance unless it runs both ways. One might ask why Hispanic students were antagonistic toward the symbol of American pride and whether an emphasis by the school on multiculturalism rather than assimilation had an influence on the perspective of all students involved.
On Cinco de Mayo in 2010, the students wearing American flag apparel chose expulsion and freedom of speech over bowing to the pressure from the school administration to remove their symbolic clothing. The parents of those students consequently sued the school district alleging that their children’s First Amendment rights were violated, a case that eventually ended up in the California Court of Appeals.
Clearly, the administration failed in their responsibility as educators and in order to maintain the peace, they resorted to actively discriminating against the students whose shirts and bandanas were decorated with the American flag. It is worth noting that, unlike gang related colors, patriotic apparel is generally not considered offensive or inflammatory in a campus setting.
Considering that in America, educators are very vocal about tolerance, civil rights, and issues of discrimination, the actions of the Live Oak administration reek of hypocrisy. The California Appeals Court has said that the school administration’s concerns over “racial violence” were more important than the rights of the students expressing their freedom of speech by wearing clothing that celebrated America. At the same time, students who were waving Mexican flags and wearing the colors of that country were not asked to tone down their freedom of speech and patriotic passion for Mexico.
Not only did the administration suppress the First Amendment rights of a sub-section of their student population, they elevated the First Amendment rights of another. If that is not discrimination, then the word must be redefined.
If the Live Oak administrators were primarily concerned with the safety of all students at the high school, then the most appropriate action would have been not to celebrate the non-federal holiday Cinco de Mayo on campus. In that case, a student assembly could have been held to set guidelines for Cinco de Mayo prohibiting all students from wearing patriotic apparel from either nation.
While it may seem a shame for students to miss out on a celebration of Mexican-American heritage and culture, the inability of Live Oak educators to teach students to be tolerant and not to discriminate based on race left them only one logical solution – one that affected all students, not just a subset of students. Instead, the administration set a very poor example for their student population by actively discriminating against non-Hispanic students thereby reducing them to second-class citizens for the day. At the same time, they took the American flag, a nationally revered symbol of pride and patriotism and treated it as if red, white and blue were on the same level as prohibited gang colors. The California Court of Appeals may have decided that the Live Oak administration had the legal right to demand the students remove their symbols of patriotic pride but that decision has done nothing to further tolerance, constitutional or civil rights in America.
Editorial By Alana Marie Burke
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