A federal appeals court panel ruled Wednesday in favor of a Tennessee school system that banned the Confederate battle flag because of concerns the symbol could inflame racial tensions at a high school.
Students Derek Barr, Chris White, Roger Craig White and their parents said in a lawsuit their free speech rights were violated by the 2005 flag ban at William Blount High School in Maryville, about 15 miles south of Knoxville.
School officials said the ban came after previous race-related incidents that included a racial slur, a fight, a civil rights complaint, a lockdown and graffiti depicting a Confederate flag and a noose.
The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals pointed to those incidents in ruling that school officials had a right to ban the flag because they could "reasonably forecast" that it would cause disruption.
"The school did not merely find the Confederate flag offensive to some students but rather found that in a context of high racial tensions, race-related altercations, and threats of violence, the flag would disrupt the school's educational process," said the opinion, which was filed in Cincinnati.
It cited previous U.S. Supreme Court rulings that allow schools to limit student speech in order to prevent disruptions to education and upheld a lower federal court's dismissal of the lawsuit in 2007.
Flag a mixed symbol
The Confederate flag is considered a symbol of racism and intolerance by some, while others consider it an emblem of their Southern heritage.
The students argued that there was no evidence the flag caused any disruption. The school is mostly white, but about 3 percent of its 1,800 students are black, said Principal Steve Lafon.
"We have all along felt it was in the best interest of our school environment to not allow any symbols ... that might be racially divisive in any way," said Lafon, who was a defendant in the lawsuit with the director of schools and the school board.
Van Irion, a Knoxville attorney who represented the students, called the ruling "appalling" and said he planned to appeal it to the Supreme Court.
"It's very clear this panel doesn't like the Confederate flag," Irion said. "That was their starting point in coming to the decision they did. The subject matter of the ban is not supposed to be relevant at all in a First Amendment analysis."
The lawsuit is the latest in a string of similar free-speech claims from Texas to South Carolina since the 1990s.
Last week, an East Tennessee teenager's free-speech lawsuit against a school dress code that banned Confederate flag clothing ended in a mistrial when a federal jury failed to reach a verdict. That lawsuit also centers on whether schools can ban the flag if it causes no substantial disruption.
In the case brought by Tommy DeFoe, 18, school officials in Clinton, Tenn. said they worried that displaying the flag would lead to racial tensions and violence at Anderson County High, which has had problems before, and at nearby Clinton High School.