There’s a new rule in the Charleston County School District as the school year begins: Confederate emblems are banned from clothing, jewelry and even cars on campus.
Leaders of the state’s second-largest school district made the decision over the summer as Charleston grieved the shooting deaths of nine parishioners during a Bible study class at the city’s historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church.
The shootings touched off national debate on the Confederate flag after suspect Dylann Roof appeared in photos with the flag and other Confederate symbols, and police said he espoused racist ideologies. Roof faces state murder charges and has been indicted on federal hate crime charges.
In a historic moment on July 10, the Confederate flag was removed from South Carolina’s statehouse grounds.
The Charleston district announced the new rule on a sheet of paper inserted into its Student Code of Conduct for 2015-16, a school district spokesperson said.
The policy comes “in light of a year marred with racially divisive and tragic events,” the note read. Students are prohibited from “wearing on campus clothing, jewelry or other apparel bearing the image of the Confederate flag.”
Students who drive to school in a vehicle bearing the battle flag will be asked to remove the image.
“These situations may be reviewed on a case-by-case basis. Students in violation of this provision will be subject to disciplinary action,” the policy reads.
Daniel Head, a spokesman for the school district, said that parents in the district’s 84 schools were in the process of being notified. Head also said that he does not know whether any parents have voiced concerns about the new rule.
“I’m sure that if people have a problem, they will let us know,” he said.
John Whitehead, founder of the Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil rights organization, said that if challenged, the school would have to prove that Confederate apparel caused substantial disruption to the educational process. He said personal items were different from public property.
“If you’re gonna keep free speech alive, you have to have diversity, difference of opinion,” he said. “Are we going to ban speech that we don’t agree with?”
Last March, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a free-speech appeal from several Northern California high school students who were told they could not wear a shirt emblazoned with an American flag on the Cinco de Mayo holiday.
The court’s action had the effect of upholding school officials who said they acted because they feared an outbreak of fighting between white and Mexican American students.
Although the rejection did not set a legal precedent, it raised questions about whether students have meaningful free-speech rights on matters that may provoke controversy.
Charleston in not alone in its policy. Many school officials in recent years have told students they may not wear clothing with disruptive messages, including the Confederate flag or shirts with anti-gay slogans.
In the California case, federal judges rejected the students’ claim on the grounds that school officials had a reasonable fear that their shirts could provoke fighting or a disruption of the school’s activities.