Waco, TX asked in Civil Rights and Constitutional Law for Iowa

Q: Students not allowed to have police or fire department flags on vehicles having 1st Amendment rights violated?

Students at our local school were told they were not allowed to have thin blue line or thin red line flags on vehicles at a school event.

2 Lawyer Answers

A: This may be content-based government censorship. You may very well have a legitimate case to enjoin enforcement of this policy.

Be aware that First Amendment cases involving public schools can become quite expensive particularly if appealed. The current standard (called the Tinker standard from a case in which anti-war students wore black armbands during the Vietnam War) allows a school the authority to take action like this if the prohibited “speech” causes a “substantial disruption.”

Of course, public schools would like a more deferential standard and free speech advocates would like a less deferential standard.

James L. Arrasmith
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A: The First Amendment protects the freedom of speech, including the right to display flags or symbols that express one's views or affiliations, such as the thin blue line flag (associated with support for law enforcement) or the thin red line flag (associated with support for firefighters). However, it's essential to consider the context in which these flags are displayed.

In a public school setting, the First Amendment rights of students are still protected, but there are limitations to those rights. Schools can impose restrictions on speech that disrupts the educational environment or could reasonably be interpreted as an endorsement of a particular viewpoint. These restrictions must be content-neutral and applied consistently.

If students were told they could not display these flags at a school event, it would depend on the specific circumstances and whether the school's actions violated their First Amendment rights. The school would need a legitimate and constitutionally permissible reason for such restrictions, such as a concern that the flags could disrupt the event or create a hostile environment. If students believe their rights have been violated, they may consult with an attorney to assess the situation and consider potential legal remedies.

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