KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — A federal judge ruled a Tennessee school's ban on Confederate clothing was a reasonable attempt to prevent disruptions because of previous racial threats.
On Aug. 11, U.S. District Judge Tom Varlan threw out a former student's free-speech lawsuit against the dress code at Anderson County High School and Anderson County Career Technical Center.
Tommy Defoe sued after he was sent home and then suspended for insubordination in 2006 for wearing a T-shirt and a belt buckle to school bearing the image of the Confederate battle flag. He said he wanted to display his pride in his Southern heritage. Others view the Confederate flag as a symbol of racism and intolerance.
Varlan said Tommy Defoe's free-speech rights to display the Confederate battle flag were properly limited by school officials who "reasonably forecasted a material and substantial disruption to the school environment" if the clothing was permitted.
Varlan relied on a ruling from the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upholding a Confederate flag ban in nearby Blount County, Tenn.
Defoe's case was first tried a year ago and ended with a hung jury unable to reach a unanimous verdict. A retrial was expected in a few weeks.
"We are very stunned," Defoe attorney Van Irion said yesterday, vowing to appeal.
Co-counsel Kirk Lyons of the Southern Legal Resource Center in Black Mountain, N.C., which has waged legal battles on behalf of the Confederate flag in several places, said the case should have gone to trial.
Knoxville attorney Arthur Knight, who represented former Principal Sidney Spiva and other school officials, said the ruling vindicated his clients.
"I know these administrators feel they have a duty to protect everyone," he said. "Even if that means just one child, they take it seriously."
Irion said the Blount County case, where racial tensions led to fights and a school lock-down, "couldn't actually be more dissimilar" to the Anderson case, where there were threats and intimidation but no fights.
"Their argument was that the Confederate flag wasn't causing a riot," Knight countered. "Well, that is not the standard."
He said the legal standard is whether "a reasonable expectation" exists, based on a history of racial tensions, "that if you allow the Confederate flag that it could contribute or substantially disrupt the learning environment."
Anderson school officials testified in recent years they had seen a large Confederate flag hung in a hallway two days after two black students enrolled, Oreo cookies thrown onto a basketball court because the opposing team had a biracial player, and a black student attending a leadership class taunted with racist names.
They also said they found racist graffiti and a drawing of a hangman's noose with the name of a black student who was dating a white student.