American Flag Shirt Fight Illustrates New American Intolerance

Tolerance is supposed to be at the core of the American ethos. What the Live Oak High incident teaches us is that this is no longer the case.


By Peter Roff, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

Five students at the Live Oak High School in Morgan Hill, Calif., were given an unexcused absence earlier this week because they chose to wear clothing ornamented with images of the American flag on May 5 or, as it is also known, “Cinco de Mayo.” School administrators, fearing their attire would be a provocation on the day Mexican-Americans commonly proclaim their heritage ordered the students--who are white--to change their clothes. When they refused they were sent home early.

The entire community is up in arms. Nearly 200 Mexican-American students walked out of class Thursday to march in protest of the way they were “disrespected.” Supporters of the five students are complaining their First Amendment right to free speech was violated.

It may be that the students did intend to start something. Teresa Casillas, the parent of two Live Oak students, told the Gilroy, Calif., Dispatch that the American-flag wearing students were yelling "We live in America!" at the brunch break Wednesday. If that’s true then school officials may have been within their rights to act as they did, following the long established precedent that the First Amendment does not protect a person’s right to shout “Fire” in a crowded theater. 

The students deny they intended to provoke any disruptions and say they frequently wear such attire to school.

Either way it can be argued that the administrators acted responsibly in taking the action they did. It can be argued that students’ right to free speech should not be protected under the U.S. Constitution, or at least can be limited even though they are guaranteed under California law. That’s not really the issue. What people should be talking about is the climate in education today where students are polarized by race and ethnic-origin and in which students who are part of the majority culture are put down because of it. The actions that school administrators took should come under scrutiny, but because what they did lends further credence to the idea that the elite culture wants it to be wrong or provocative to be proud of this country.

Something is out of whack. It is disturbing that the values being taught in a school like Live Oak could lead sophomore Jessica Cortez to conclude it was “disrespectful” to wear the American flag on a day given over to recognizing Mexican heritage. "They can be a patriot on some other day. Not that specific day,” she told the media.

Ms. Cortez and, one can assume, the rest of the student body is not being taught all that the rest of us were about what it means to be American. Remember the phrase, “I may not agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Apparently that only applies in selected cases these days.

Tolerance is supposed to be at the core of the American ethos. What the Live Oak incident teaches us is that this is no longer the case. If you are perceived to be powerful, to be successful, to be part of the majority you either no longer have the ability to exercise your rights in the same way as everyone else or there are too many special exceptions being made for those who are classified as being in a minority.

The contemporary culture lionizes those who say or do things that stick a thumb in America’s eye. Burn a flag? Okay. Wear a flag t-shirt to affirm your love of country, not so okay. When expressions of minority interests and concerns are presented in a provocative manner they are too often cheered or explained away as being legitimate expressions of what America is really all about. Make those same kinds of expressions in defense of traditional American ideals like the flag, love of country or a defense of the Founding Fathers and it is just as likely as not that it will be presented as being disrespectful and be sanctioned, as in the case of the students at Live Oak High School.

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