Concerned that the raging immigration debate would spark violence, officials in at least two schools in Colorado have banned students from bringing flags to school, the AP reports. Predictably, this news and associated rumors have lit up the phone lines at call-in shows around the nation.
Conservatives are right to bristle at the idea that the American flag is being treated as a "fighting word." But a few clarifications seem to be in order. 1) It wasn't just the American flag that was banned, but all flags. 2) Conservatives respect the principle that school officials ought to have wide latitude to govern student behavior in the interests of order and discipline. Until 1969, principals and teachers had unquestioned authority in such matters. But, as I noted in my book "Do-Gooders" (just out in paperback -- shameless plug), the Supreme Court undermined that authority. During the Vietnam War, students had been disciplined for wearing black armbands to school in protest against the war. Liberal judges tended to like war protesters and dislike authority. Judge Abe Fortas wrote for the majority, "It can hardly be argued that students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to free speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate." Justice Hugo Black filed a blistering dissent: "Uncontrolled and uncontrollable liberty is an enemy to domestic peace. . . . School discipline, like parental discipline, is an integral and important part of training our children to be good citizens."
News spreads fast and rumors spread faster. The AP points out that contrary to rumor, the American flag was not lowered from the flagpole at a Denver public school. Nor have children who wore red, white and blue clothing been sent home to change.
On the other hand, some schools have banned the wearing of camouflage clothing, which children had donned to show support for American troops. And at Reagan High School in Houston, the principal ran up the Mexican flag (albeit below the Stars and Stripes and the Texas flag) to show solidarity with his immigrant pupils.