A couple of weeks ago, Denair Middle School student Cody Alicea rode his bike to school like any other day with an American flag flapping in the wind behind him. At the time, he was learning about the United States Constitution and the freedom of speech guaranteed to all Americans under the First Amendment.
And then he experienced a hands-on lesson about First Amendment rights at school when a campus supervisor asked him to remove the American flag off of his bike because of safety concerns.
“A school employee said some students have been complaining about my flag and I needed to take it down,” Alicea said on Nov. 12. “So I took it down. I was kind of mad and upset because I have been flying it for two months and all of a sudden its veterans’ week and it’s a problem.”
Little did he know that he was repeating history by taking a stand for those rights just like 15-year-old John Tinker did back in 1965.
Tinker and a group of Iowa teens decided to protest the Vietnam War by wearing black armbands in December 1965. They were suspended by school officials who stated that students were not allowed to wear armbands according to school policy.
The students argued their First Amendment rights were taken away, and the case made its way to the Supreme Court.
Just like in the Tinker case, Alicea felt like his rights were taken away.
“It is about freedom of speech,” Alicea said on Nov. 12. “You should be able to fly whatever flag you want.”
The Denair Unified School District has argued that the request to remove Alicea’s flag was based on safety concerns and was needed to give school staff time to investigate a potentially dangerous situation involving threats.
“While it is our responsibility to ensure that all students are safe at school, we also support students’ First Amendment rights,” said DUSD Superintendent Ed Parraz in a community letter.
In the Tinker case, the U.S. Supreme Court held “a prohibition against expression of opinion, without any evidence that the rule is necessary to avoid substantial interference with school discipline or the rights of others, is not permissible under the First and Fourteenth amendments.”
Finding the balance between protecting a student’s First Amendment rights, while ensuring their safety is, at times, not an easy task.
“A student’s safety is the upmost priority, but you don’t want to take their rights away,” said Tom Changnon, Stanislaus County Office of Education superintendent. “You need to address the problem of safety and address the issues at hand.”
Parraz also agreed that safety is number one for his students.
“It (First Amendment rights) is a gray area,” he said. “We have to find a balance between protecting the First Amendment rights and keeping our students safe.”
In the aftermath of the flag situation, many have stated that the threats should have been handled without the violation of Alicea’s First Amendment rights.
“I was pissed off because we have people in other countries dying for what we have today and for them to take his rights away and give them to someone else, you know…,” said Alicea’s step father Robert Kisner on Nov. 12. “This is our First Amendment rights.”
To contact Maegan Martens, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 634-9141 ext. 2015.