Friday, March 09, 2001

T-shirt lawsuit can continue

Confederate flag got 2 suspended

        A federal appeals court on Thursday reinstated a lawsuit by two Kentucky teen-agers who were suspended from school for wearing country music concert shirts that depicted the Confederate flag.

        Timothy Castorina and Tiffany Dargavell, students at Madison Central High School in 1997, were suspended twice for wearing the Hank Williams Jr. concert T-shirts. The school board punished the students based on a policy that said it could ban any clothing containing any “illegal, immoral or racist implications.”

        The students dropped out in favor of home schooling, then sued the school system in federal court in Lexington, Ky., for violating their free-speech rights.

        U.S. District Judge Henry Wilhoit dismissed the suit, ruling in August 1999 that the high school could forbid students from wearing the Confederate flag on their clothes in order to avoid racial tension on campus.

        In its ruling Thursday, the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati said it was “unable to resolve the constitutionality of the school board's actions without knowing the manner in which the school board enforced its dress code,” Senior Judge Gilbert S. Merritt wrote.

        Judge Merritt said questions of fact remained, namely whether the school had experienced any race-based violence prior to the suspensions.

        Judge Wilhoit's 1999 ruling upset groups like the Sons of the Confederate Veterans and the American Civil Liberties Union, which argued that students should be allowed to express their beliefs.

        Mr. Castorina, a junior, and Ms. Dargavell, a freshman, came to school in September 1997 wearing matching Hank Williams Jr. concert T-shirts, which included images of the Confederate flag and the phrase “Southern Thunder.”

        The school's principal, William Fultz, told the students that the shirts violated the school's dress code policy and gave them the choice of turning the shirts inside out or going home to change. The school at the time was 9 percent black.

        They refused, and Mr. Fultz suspended them each for three days. The two returned wearing the same shirts and were suspended again.

        In a statement Thursday, the Sons of the Confederate Veterans said they were pleased with the appeals court ruling.

        “Persecution of Southerners and Southern heritage has increased dramatically in recent years,” said Don Shelton, commander of the Sons of the Confederate Veterans' Kentucky Division.


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