ACLU-NJ Stands Up for Student’s Free Speech Rights

March 28, 2014

Mercer County high school prohibited student from flying Confederate flag on truck

NEWARK – The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey sent a letter to Steinert High School to Steinert High School Principal Frank Ingargiola this week expressing concerns about the school’s demand for a student to stop flying a Confederate flag from his truck in the school parking lot. When high school senior Greg Vied refused to remove his flag, the Hamilton Township school ordered him to remove his stars-and-bars banner by the time he came back to the campus after serving a separately issued one-day suspension.

“As a civil rights organization, the ACLU-NJ recognizes that for many New Jersey communities the Confederate flag represents a painful history. At the same time, suppression of constitutionally protected speech goes against our founding principles as a nation,” said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Edward Barocas. “As the U.S. Supreme Court has made clear, students' rights don't end at the school house gates -- they also don't end in the school parking lot."

The ACLU-NJ has urged school officials to rescind their calls for Vied to take down the flag. A number of court decisions – federal and state – protect Vied’s right to display the Confederate flag, most famously Tinker v. Des Moines, which allows censorship of student speech only if the administration can prove it would “materially and substantially” disrupt the operation of the school or interfere with another’s rights. The courts have upheld that the potential to offend does not alone constitute a material disruption.

“The First Amendment protects the right to express any viewpoint, no matter how unpopular, and therein lies its strength,” Barocas added. “As soon as we allow the government to silence one unpopular opinion – from the local school district to the president of the United States – the line between acceptable speech and banned types of thinking becomes dangerously blurred.”

In addition to defending the freedom of expression such as the flying of a Confederate flag, the ACLU-NJ fights doggedly for racial justice and equality in New Jersey, including work to end racial disparities in our broken criminal justice and education systems.

“The First Amendment protects the right to express any viewpoint, no matter how unpopular, and therein lies its strength,” Barocas added. “As soon as we allow the government to silence one unpopular opinion – from the local school district to the president of the United States – the line between acceptable speech and banned types of thinking becomes dangerously blurred.”

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Category: Free Speech

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