KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Three students and their parents sued the Blount County school system on March 2, claiming a ban on the Confederate battle flag at William Blount High School violates their free speech.
“They are basically saying students can’t express themselves by wearing anything with a Confederate flag on it,” said lawyer Kirk Lyons of the Southern Legal Resource Center.
“Out of all the T-shirts that are worn to school every day, a student cannot express pride in his Southern heritage at William Blount High School,” he said.
The Black Mountain, N.C.-based group and the Tennessee Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans are supporting the lawsuit filed in federal court against school Principal Steve Lafon, Schools Director Alvin Hord and the Blount County School Board.
“Our policy is that any type of clothing which has graphics, words or pictures that are distracting to the learning process of the school ... are not supposed to be worn,” schools spokeswoman Alisa Teffeteller said.
The policy has been on the books for several years, but it had not been enforced until last April when the sheriff’s office had to lock down the school amid rising tensions and threats to black students.
The students bringing the lawsuit, Derek Barr, Chris Nicole White and Roger Craig White, said they were threatened with suspension if they refused to cover or turn inside out shirts bearing the Confederate emblem. They complied.
Meanwhile, their lawsuit claims other students have worn clothing depicting “foreign national flags, Malcolm X symbols and political slogans” without repercussions.
The students are seeking a preliminary injunction to lift the ban.
“If we get something filed against us, we will have to deal with it,” Teffeteller said.
The issue is unrelated to problems at city-run Maryville High School, also in Blount County, which has banned the Confederate flag from athletic events in response to concerns over the school’s nickname, the “Red Rebels.”
William Blount High’s nickname is the “Governors,” after Tennessee’s territorial Gov. William Blount.