Editor’s note: On Oct. 5, 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court turned away the students’ appeal, leaving in place the 6th Circuit’s ruling.
NASHVILLE — A federal appeals court ruled yesterday in favor of a Tennessee
school system that banned the Confederate battle flag because of concerns the
symbol could inflame racial tensions at a high school.
Students Derek Barr, Chris White, Roger Craig White and their parents claimed
in a lawsuit that their free-speech rights were violated by the 2005 flag ban at
William Blount High School in Maryville, about 15 miles south of Knoxville.
School officials said the ban came after previous race-related incidents that
included a racial slur, a fight, a civil rights complaint, a lockdown and
graffiti depicting a Confederate flag and a noose.
The Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals pointed to those
incidents in ruling that school officials had a right to ban the flag because
they could "reasonably forecast" that it would cause disruption.
"The school did not merely find the Confederate flag offensive to some
students but rather found that in a context of high racial tensions,
race-related altercations, and threats of violence, the flag would disrupt the
school's educational process," Judge Karen Nelson Moore wrote for the unanimous
three-judge panel in Barr v.
The panel cited previous U.S. Supreme Court rulings that allow schools to
limit student speech in order to prevent disruptions to education and upheld a
lower court's dismissal of the lawsuit in 2007.
The Confederate flag is considered a symbol of racism and intolerance by
some, while others consider it an emblem of their Southern heritage.
The students argued that there was no evidence the flag caused any
disruption. The school is mostly white but about 3% of its 1,800 students are
black, said Principal Steve Lafon.
"We have all along felt it was in the best interest of our school environment
to not allow any symbols ... that might be racially divisive in any way," said
Lafon, who was a defendant in the lawsuit with the director of schools and the
Van Irion, a Knoxville attorney who represented the students, called the
ruling "appalling" and said he planned to appeal it to the Supreme Court.
"It's very clear this panel doesn't like the Confederate flag," Irion said.
"That was their starting point in coming to the decision they did. The subject
matter of the ban is not supposed to be relevant at all in a First Amendment
The lawsuit is the latest in a string of similar free-speech claims
concerning the Confederate flag from Texas to South Carolina since the
Last week, an East Tennessee teenager's free-speech lawsuit against a school
dress code that banned Confederate flag clothing ended in a mistrial when a
federal jury failed to reach a verdict. That lawsuit centers on whether schools
can ban the flag if it causes no substantial disruption.
In the case brought by Tommy DeFoe, 18, school officials in Clinton, Tenn.,
said they worried that displaying the flag would lead to racial tensions and
violence at Anderson County High, which has had problems before, and at nearby
Clinton High School.