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Rocklin student disciplined for displaying Confederate flag at school sparks debate

The landmark court case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District cemented students' right to free speech. However, there are limitations.

ROCKLIN, Calif. — A Rocklin student is facing disciplinary action for displaying a Confederate flag on his truck while on campus.

The issue has prompted a debate about whether such an act is protected under the First Amendment.

In a letter to parents Thursday, Whitney High School's principal said the incident of a student displaying a Confederate flag on campus "undermines our values of inclusiveness and equity," adding it was in violation of school board policy.

But students don't shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gates, as decided in a landmark 1968 Supreme Court case. Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District cemented students' right to free speech. However, there are limitations.

"The school can say, ‘Hey look, we have restrictions on that because it's creating a disruptive environment of learning, therefore, we're going to curtail your free speech,’" said Lawyer Craig Ashton.

Ashton said the laws are clear. While people are protected under the First Amendment to wave the flag outside their capitol or down the street, for instance, he said the Confederate flag would pose a major disruption for a school community and can be restricted by schools.

Courts have repeatedly upheld bans by schools of the flag.

"You are essentially celebrating those that seceded from the Union to basically support slavery. It's really treasonous. That's what it is. That's what the message stands if you understand history," Ashton said.

Strictly under the First Amendment, he said the same school restrictions could hold for a Black Lives Matter, but that message, he said, has other legal protections.

"This one, you can say it's discriminatory, and at that point, you might have an equal protection issue," Ashton said.

Ashton said the incident can serve as a learning opportunity for students.

School administrators released the following statement on the incident:

"We respect the rights of individuals to express their views, however, those views and expressions may directly conflict with our legal obligation to ensure a non-discriminatory and non-harassing environment for our students and staff."  

Administrators met Thursday with student clubs to discuss the incident and student concerns.

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