Free Speech, Cinco de Mayo and the Politics of the Flag

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With the debate over Arizona’s new immigation law raging, it was inevitable, perhaps, that this year’s Cinco de Mayo festivities would be politically charged. In Washington, where every shindig serves some political purpose, President Obama used the occasion to blast SB1070 and urge Congress to press ahead with immigration reform. But at a California high school, the holiday was tainted by an incident that raises First Amendment questions. Five students at Live Oak High School in Morgan Hill, Calif., were ordered by school officials to remove or cover up American flag attire yesterday. The school, which has a large Mexican-American population, told the students their clothing was “incendiary,” according to reports.

Galli says he and his friends were sitting at a table during brunch break when 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. When they refused, the boys were ordered to go to the principal’s office.

“They said we could wear it on any other day,” Daniel Galli said, “but today is sensitive to Mexican-Americans because it’s supposed to be their holiday so we were not allowed to wear it today.”

To avoid suspension, the students went home. Administrators defended the measure, saying they sought to defuse a potential confrontation before it occurred. At least one student told a reporter that she found her peers’ attire offensive. “I think they should apologize cause it is a Mexican Heritage Day,” Annicia Nunez, a Live Oak High student, said. “We don’t deserve to be get disrespected like that. We wouldn’t do that on the Fourth of July.” The school district, however, released a statement disavowing the principal’s decision. The students’ parents were predictably outraged. “I think it’s absolutely ridiculous,” said one mother. “All they were doing was displaying their patriotic nature. They’re expressing their individuality.”

This is a willfully myopic statement, but that doesn’t mean the school didn’t make a mistake. Proper context — the level of tension between Hispanic and Caucasian students, the students’ history and behavior that day, etc. — is probably necessary to fully understand and assess the decision. The AP notes that the kids insist they weren’t trying to start trouble and reports at least two of them were Mexican. (I’m noting this in the interest of additional context.) Donning the Stars and Stripes on this specific day, and amid a heated national debate over issues of racial profiling, immigration and border security may well have been “incendiary.” Clearly it’s indelicate. Even so, the right to free speech includes incendiary free speech. That’s part of the bargain.