On the subject of the American right, and whether or not its rank-and-file receive accurate information from the opinion leaders they trust, the events I’m about to lay out are telling.
On May 5, aka Cinco de Mayo, five students at a high school in Morgan Hill, California wore American flag attire to class. “The vice principal asked two of the boys to remove American flag bandannas that they wearing on their heads and for the others to turn their American flag T-shirts inside out,” the local NBC affiliate reported. “When they refused, the boys were ordered to go to the principal’s office.” The story got picked up in the national media, bloggers debated whether the boys were being patriotic or deliberately insensitive, and almost everyone at least agreed that in this country they were well within their rights to wear the American flag.
I am very interested in one aspect of the discussion that followed this story. The conservative blog Stop the ACLU is a natural place to begin. “Cinco De Mayo Means Suspension of Free Speech and Patriotism,” their post began. “At least in Morgan Hill, California where they live by the rules of political correctness gone crazy.” The ultimate reaction: “Absolutely ridiculous! Where is the ACLU?”
Says the most trusted man in conservative radio, Rush Limbaugh:
So they were sent home because the authorities thought they were trying to start trouble. Cinco de Mayo is not even an official Mexican holiday. Start trouble. American flags. Start trouble by wearing American colors in the Bay Area, San Francisco Bay area, Morgan Hills. Right. American flag, American colors, red, white, and blue are now judged in certain parts of the country as trouble, or hate speech, provocative. They were trying to incite violence. That’s what they were accused of: wearing American colors, inciting violence. That’s why they were sent home. They were sent home, they were viewed as troublemakers in the Bay Area.
I have a story from 2006 or 2007 in the Arizona Daily Star. It’s outta Tucson. The story is about a man who was arrested for burning a Mexican flag in Arizona. Arrested for burning a Mexican flag. Now, nobody gets arrested for burning the American flag. In fact, they are celebrated. They are elevated to hero status. And they have the ACLU and others coming after them to defend them.
At David Horowitz’s News Real Blog, David Forsmark writes:
The “American” Civil Liberties Union has forfeited any right to that moniker, and the proof has never been clearer than this week. The ACLU has defended students’ “rights” to do, say, and WEAR, just about anything while on a high school campus. But this week, they have nothing to say about the Morgan Hill Live Oak Five who were suspended for wearing American flags because they were “incendiary.”
Conservative Ralph Wenzinger, writing in the Bakersfield Californian: “This is the flag of the United States. It causes me to wonder if they fly an American flag at the school or whether that, too, was taken down. Maybe Morgan Hill has seceded from the United States? It also causes me to wonder, “ACLU, where are you?”
Speak Now America writes: “Two or three years ago a story in the Arizona Daily Star a man was arrested for burning a Mexican flag in Arizona. Arrested for burning a Mexican flag? You can’t get arrested for burning the American flag. In fact, they are celebrated. They are elevated to hero status. And they have the ACLU and others coming after them to defend them.”
Elijah Friedman: “There is not apology forthcoming from the school. And don’t cross your fingers about the ACLU getting involved this; defending the right to show patriotism isn’t exactly their type of case.”
The blog Pirate’s Cove: “The boys and their families have nicely told those offended by the wearing of American flags to shove it where the sun don’t shine. Good for them. Will the ACLU jump in and protect the rights of these boys? Doubtful.”
The Old Jarhead: “If they had burned the flag, the ACLU would already have the school officials in court.”
Jules Crittenden mentioned the controversy. Said his first commenter: “Where are the ACLU, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and their myrmidons to protest such egregious actions?”
At Radio Voice Online, a commenter asked, “Question of the day: why is it that when students wear Che shirts or pseudo erotic, near prostitute quality garments, or wear gang colors, or have their pants hanging mid thigh, the ACLU cockroaches come out of the woodwork to defend the student’s first amendment rights, but when students act patriotically, as in this case, the are suspended and sent home?”
Says another at Uncoverage.Net, “What will REALLY be interesting is: Will the ACLU jump right in and defend these student’s constitutional rights, just as they did in the Vermont case? I won’t hold my breath waiting….”
Dr. Hugo at The Mighty Righty conversation board:
I’m also puzzled at why, when such an obvious transgression upon those students individual rights of freedom of speech and expression was committed that the ACLU (American Communist Lawyers’ Union) didn’t immediately rally to their side and file an action in the appropriate District Court? Maybe they were conflicted and were considering filing on behalf of the Mexican-America students!
The blog Waiting for the Other Shoe to Drop: “Can you imagine had this been July 4th and the school officials sent the Mexican-American kids home for wearing the Mexican flag on their tee shirt? The ACLU would have been all over that.”
I could go on. Other examples abound at outlets well-known and obscure, from big names and small, creators and commenters, all of them operating on the right side of the blogosphere. I didn’t even attempt to dig through radio archives or television broadcasts, though I’ll post other examples if they are sent to me.
Oh, if you haven’t caught on yet, the ACLU predictably sided with the American flag wearing students in this case:
Last week, five students at Live Oak High School in Morgan Hill, Calif., were sent home on Cinco de Mayo for wearing T-shirts bearing the American flag. The students were reportedly sent home after Vice Principal Miguel Rodriguez told them the shirts posed a “safety issue” on a day celebrating Mexican heritage.
Punishing students for wearing T-shirts with the American flag is a clear violation of their free speech rights. The ACLU of Northern California responded to the incident by sending a letter (PDF) to Morgan Hill Schools Superintendant Dr. Wesley Smith, reminding him of the speech rights students are entitled to under the U.S. Constitution and California law.
The letter points out that students’ wearing of the American flag wouldn’t have been controversial but for the interest of other students in celebrating their Mexican heritage on Cinco de Mayo. The students’ patriotic display was particularly meaningful because of the context, and their right to express their patriotism in light of that context must be honored. The right to wear an American flag every day but Cinco de Mayo would do little to advance the important work of the First Amendment, whose protections must be enforced every day.
There is another important lesson for the school here. For displays of the American flag to create such a strong concern about disruption, it’s likely the school has underlying racial and cultural tensions that need attention. Using censorship to suppress student speech is exactly the wrong thing to do in this kind of situation. While the school superintendent did make a statement reaffirming the school district’s support for students’ speech rights, it’s also important that the Live Oak teachers and administrators use this incident as an opportunity to teach students tolerance, diversity and mutual respect.
A PDF of the more formal letter sent to the school is here. This shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with the actual ACLU, as opposed to the movement conservative caricature of it. And indeed, a quick e-mail exchange with the ACLU’s admirably efficient Rachel L. Meyers yielded a summary of other cases where the organization took very similar stands on behalf of folks adorning themselves with the patriotic symbol:
Sampson County Schools Prohibit Student from Wearing American Flag T-shirt — September 2007 — the ACLU of North Carolina received information that a student in Sampson County was banned from wearing an American flag t-shirt to school the previous day to commemorate 9/11/01. The ACLU-NC contacted the school board attorney and sent a letter to the principal and superintendent, advising the school officials that this ban violated the student’s First Amendment free speech rights. By the end of the day, the school district notified all parents in Sampson County that the policy would not be enforced. On September 13, 2007, the Sampson County superintendent sent us a letter confirming that the policy had been repealed.
High School Honors Student Disciplined for Wearing an American Flag in Her Back Pocket — April 2006 — Fallbrook Union High School officials ordered 15-year-old honors student Malia Fontana to remove the small American flag she was carrying in her back pocket. The ACLU wrote a letter calling on the San Diego County school district to stop its practice of censoring students’ wearing of flags and comply with the constitutional protection of student speech laid out in Tinker v. Des Moines, which affirmed the right of students to wear black armbands in protest of the Vietnam War. The letter also demanded that the school clear Malia’s school record and provide a written apology to Malia and her mother.
Longboat Harbour Condo Association (FL) — 1989 — Our affiliate defended the right of a man to fly an American flag at his condo unit. The case was settled and then the Florida legislature passed a statute specifically allowing American flags to be flown at condos.
It being extremely rare for authorities to crackdown on American flag wearing in the United States, it says something that the ACLU has invested resources in four separate instances of this behavior.
It’s almost as if the conservative media complex is systematically misleading its audience about the nature of the ACLU, so much so that right-of-center commentators across the Internet spontaneously mocked the organization for failing to intervene on the right side of this case, despite it being precisely the kind of case where the ACLU reliably does exactly what the critics themselves would want.
Perhaps the confusion comes from listening to talk radio hosts and reading blogs that cast all of American politics as a grand struggle between the left and the right, liberals and conservatives, tyranny and liberty. The rank and file, rightly judging that the ACLU operates on the left, automatically concludes that they are the enemy in any case worth caring about.
Awhile back, Jonah Goldberg doubted whether or not there were actually compelling examples of epistemic closure on the right. Well, there you go: an information loop so faulty in explaining the ACLU to its audience that even a blog called Stop the ACLU doesn’t understand what’s going on.
The right cannot adeptly navigate a political environment that it is systematically misled about.