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The American Flag Was Banned at a South Carolina High School

3 minute read
Kirsten Salyer is a writer and the former Deputy Editor of TIME Ideas

A South Carolina high school has come under social-media fire the past few days for its decision to ban the American flag at a recent football game.

The school’s principal believed flags at Friday’s game could be used to taunt the opposing team, which was from a predominantly Hispanic community. During a previous game against the same team, students from Travelers Rest High School allegedly waved flags at Hispanic students from Berea High School and shouted: “go home.”

After backlash from students and alumni, school officials reversed their position Monday and said they would evaluate behavior on an individual basis moving forward.

The school’s decision—and ensuing outrage from many in the community—brings up two hot-button questions, one legal, one political.

First, do schools have a constitutional right to ban flags and other items of expression?

As Wall Street Journal‘s Law Blog explained on Monday, according to the 1996 case Tinker vs. Des Moines School District, such censorship is permitted if the act could “materially and substantially interfere” with school activities.

Principal Lou Lavely justified the school’s action in a statement: “Any decision to not allow the American flag to be used in an improper ‘taunting,’ unsportsmanlike manner is first and foremost in the interests of promoting the safety and well-being of all in attendance at school events.”

Yet others argued that denying entry to students with American flags restricted their right to free speech—and was an act of cowardice on the part of the school. “I’m sick of this political correctness, wrote Travelers Rest alum Hunter Bellows in a Facebook post that has been shared more than 1,400 times. Another alum, Joseph Carter, commented on the post: “If you can’t respect the student body and their love for the flag, then maybe it’s time for you to go somewhere else, maybe another country.”

And that brings up the second question: Is this really about the flag at all?

Debates over immigration, political correctness and free speech have been major themes this election season. The experience of this one South Carolina school, in a state that only last year removed the Confederate flag from its State House, offers a compelling example of how divisive these issues continue to be.

Regardless of whether the individual students planned to taunt their Hispanic football opponents or wave our country’s flag in pride, the outrage on both sides is a reminder of the power of symbols and importance of having serious conversations about what values we choose to hold most dear.

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