A 14-year-old Farmington High School freshman who left school after being told not to wear clothing that featured the Confederate flag has accused the district of violating his civil rights, according to a lawsuit processed Wednesday in federal court.
Bryce Archambo, along with his parents Marc and Tamra Archambo of Ste. Genevieve County, filed suit against the school district, Superintendent Dr. W. L. Sanders, Assistant Superintendent Judith Delaney and teacher Mark Krause. The individuals are sued only in their capacity as district staff.
The complaint, filed Tuesday in the Eastern District Court in St. Louis, asks for an injunction and a declaratory judgment from the court and claims the school district violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
&#8220We’re not asking for damages, we are asking for the suspension to be erased, we want him reinstated in school and we want their policy changed,” said Bob Herman of St. Louis, the Archambo’s attorney. &#8220And I want it done right away.”
Sanders had not heard about the lawsuit Wednesday morning, but the district’s attorney, Tom Mickes, said he is confident that the school’s decision will be upheld.
&#8220Our position is there is no violation,” Mickes said. &#8220We acted in the best interest of students at our school.”
According to the complaint, Bryce (referred to as B. W. A. in the court document) wore a baseball cap to school Sept. 27 that featured an emblem depicting the Confederate States of America, with the words &#8220C.S.A., Rebel Pride, 1861.” Krause took the cap and told Bryce he could not wear the hat or anything else depicting the Confederate states because it conveys a message of racism. That day, Delaney told Bryce he could not wear any clothing with the rebel flag or any representation of the Confederate states, because such insignia sends a racist message.
The following day, Bryce wore a T-shirt and belt buckle that depicted the Confederate States of America and had the words &#8220Dixie Classics.” He was suspended from school that day and Tamra Archambo withdrew him from the district &#8220as a direct result of Defendants’ censorship of B.W.A.’s speech,” according to the formal complaint.
Herman said the decision to allow Bryce to wear the T-shirt to school was a &#8220family” decision made by him and his parents based on free speech.
&#8220It was a family decision that was made to support his rights,” Herman said. &#8220When the school suspended him for a day, his mother went in to the school and rather than accept the suspension, she withdrew him.”
Bryce currently is home schooled but wants to return to Farmington High School, he added.
They contend that the district’s policy is unconstitutional because it is &#8220overbroad, subjective, applied on an ad hoc basis, and is viewpoint discriminatory.”
They also contend that displaying a Confederate flag or emblem is not offensive speech under the First Amendment.
Herman cited three U.S. Supreme Court cases – Tinker v. Des Moines School District, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier and Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser – to back the complaint.
In the Tinker case, the Supreme Court ruled that that school district had violated the First Amendment rights of three students who wore black armbands in 1965 as protest against the Vietnam War.
In Hazelwood, the Supreme Court in 1988 found in favor of the school district in a case that involved the high school principal removing pages of the school newspaper before publication.
In the 1986 Bethel case, the Court found in favor of the school district, saying that freedom of speech did not extend to making a lewd and suggestive speech in school.
Herman contends that the wearing of Confederate symbols symbolizes Bryce’s point of view, something that schools are not allowed to dictate.
&#8220The nature of schools gives them the right to control subject matter, context and rhetoric,” he said. &#8220But they still don’t give schools the rights to determine viewpoint. There are people who don’t think the Confederate flag automatically is racist.”
Mickes said that the school has evidence of a &#8220reasonable possibility of disruption” when someone wears the Confederate flag or other Confederate insignia. He said the Office of Civil Rights in the past investigated the use of racial words used during basketball game in at tournament at Central School District. Although Farmington players were not involved in the name calling, the situation illustrates that racism is a disruptive element.
Mickes said Bryce’s initial statement also provided a reasonable possibility of disruption. Although he would not provide details of that statement, he said the boy’s reasons for wearing the Confederate insignia were not permissible.
&#8220To use a hackneyed expression, the First Amendment doesn’t protect you if you yell ‘fire’ in a theater,” Mickes said. &#8220We were never informed until after he went to the media that he was celebrating his Southern heritage. That is not what he told administrators.”
The school district contends that messages featuring the Confederacy is perceived by some students as threatening or intimidating. Mickes said Bryce was asked to turn his shirt inside out for the remainder of the day and not to wear it again.
Bryce refused, he said.
&#8220If students were wearing Malcolm X shirts, I suspect this student might have complained that he felt intimidated,” Mickes said. &#8220We want our district to be a place where every child – regardless of their ethnicity, race or gender – can go to school and get a good education in an environment that is not threatening or intimidating to them.”
Herman, who has represented members of the KKK and Neo Nazi movement, said the issue is not one of protecting racism, but of ensuring that First Amendment rights are not violated.
&#8220If I protect the First Amendment rights of fringes of society, I never have to worry about protecting my own right to free speech,” he said. &#8220In order to maintain freedom, you have to have the head rule and not the heart.”
But Mickes said the issue is about a school’s responsibility to protect its students.
&#8220Schools have become far too violent,” he said. &#8220We want to remove any of those potential sources.”