COLUMBIA, S.C. — A South Carolina teen who sued a school district over the right to wear Confederate-themed clothing to school will appeal a federal judge’s ruling that sided with the district, her attorney said yesterday.
"This is an immanently appealable decision," said Kirk Lyons, an attorney for the Southern Legal Resource Center based in North Carolina. "I think we can get this reversed" in the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
In 2006, Lyons' group filed a federal lawsuit against the Latta School District on behalf of Candice Hardwick, then a 15-year-old high school sophomore.
Hardwick's attorneys argued that the teen — who was forced to change clothes, turn shirts inside-out and was suspended twice for Confederate-themed clothing in middle school — felt that a ban on wearing the Confederate emblem violated her right to free speech.
That notion was tossed out last week by a federal judge, who ruled that Hardwick's attorneys didn't have enough evidence to succeed with their case.
In his 33-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Terry Wooten wrote that district officials, fearing possible disruptions if Confederate-themed clothing were allowed in the racially diverse schools, acted reasonably in banning such items.
"The defendants possessed substantial facts which reasonably supported a forecast that Confederate flag clothing would likely disrupt the educational environment of the schools within the Latta School District," Wooten wrote.
The SLRC had argued that a 2002 decision from the 6th Circuit involving a Kentucky high school student was central to Hardwick's situation.
In 1997, Madison Central High School student Timothy Castorina sued after he was suspended for wearing a T-shirt with a Confederate flag. A federal judge tossed out the case, saying T-shirts aren't a form of free speech, but an appeals court overturned that decision, and the school settled.
Hardwick's family has said the teen's desire to show Confederate pride by sporting T-shirts, belt buckles and cell-phone covers bearing the red flag crisscrossed with blue stripes and white stars is a family thing.
When Hardwick kicked off the last week of school in May 2006 by staging a protest march into the high school, her father said two of his great-great grandfathers had been Confederate veterans — including one who was wounded at Gettysburg.
Hardwick left Latta High School her senior year and was home-schooled, Lyons said. Now, she is living in Clemson, doing modeling jobs, he said.
While some regard the Confederate flag as a symbol of heritage, others complain it is a racially charged reminder of a past the South should move beyond.
John Kirby, superintendent for the Latta School District, said the symbol could be disruptive in his schools, which were segregated until the 1970s and held separate proms for blacks and whites until the mid 1980s. A decade later, two white students were expelled from Latta High School after they were charged with burning down black churches in the area.
"The decision reaffirms the right of our community to have an expectation of safe schools," Kirby said. "We feel like this decision also supports the duty of our local school board to develop appropriate policy, to demand a safe school environment."
The ruling is similar to one last month, when a federal judge ruled a Tennessee school's ban on Confederate clothing was a reasonable attempt to prevent disruptions. Tommy Defoe, the student who sued that district, has appealed.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that students' free-speech rights don't end at the schoolhouse door. But it has not heard a case specifically on whether a student may wear Confederate symbols to school. Lyons said he'd be glad to argue the first.
"This would be a good case to take to the Supreme Court," Lyons said. "If the courts allow this to stand, then it is proof that we are a system of gulags that they call public schools."