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Ninth Circuit upholds school's ban on US flag t-shirts

The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] Thursday that a California public school's request for students to remove their American flag t-shirts on Cinco de Mayo was not a violation of their First Amendment [Cornell LII backgrounder] rights. On Cinco de Mayo 2010, a teacher at Live Oak high School [school website] asked for certain students to remove their American Flag t-shirts or leave school due to ongoing hostility between white and Mexican students. The administrators and teachers justified this action with the argument that students were in danger and that physical conflict could erupt. The federal appeals court ruled that the school's actions were not unconstitutional, finding that administration acted properly under the reasonable belief that their students' safety was in question. The court also ruled that the school was allowed to target only students with American flag t-shirts with the understanding that a school may confront any student who wears a symbol that could cause significant disruptions to the educational environment.

First Amendment rights of students remain a controversial issue. In 2011 the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled that schools cannot punish students [JURIST report] for speech or writing created outside the school environment. The Supreme Court has addressed freedom of speech in schools most recently in Morse v. Frederick [Duke Law backgrounder; JURIST report]. In June 2007 the court held [opinion; JURIST report] that public schools do not violate the First Amendment rights of students by punishing them for speech during a school-sanctioned activity that may be reasonably interpreted to promote the use of illegal substances. A high school student was suspended after he displayed a banner with the message "Bong hits 4 Jesus" during a televised parade on a school day. The court reversed the Ninth Circuit's decision [opinion, PDF] and held that the "First Amendment does not require schools to tolerate at school events student expression that contributes" to the danger of illegal drug use.

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