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In the school context, the legal principle that emerges from the Confederate flag cases is that what matters is substantial disruption or a reasonable forecast of substantial disruption, taking into account either the behavior of a speaker—e.g., causing substantial disruption alongside the silent or passive wearing of an emblem—or the reactions of onlookers.
A group of students was wearing clothing bearing images of the American flag in a Cinco de Mayo celebration. Acting upon threats of race-related violence, the school officials offered the students the choice to either turn their shirts inside out or to go home for the day with excused absences that would not count against their attendance records. The students and their parents, acting as guardians, brought suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the California Constitution against the school and the school officials, alleging violations of their federal and California constitutional rights to freedom of expression and their federal constitutional rights to equal protection and due process. On cross-motions for summary judgment, the district court granted the school officials’ motion on all claims and denied the students' motion on all claims, holding that school officials did not violate the students' federal or state constitutional rights. The plaintiffs appealed.
Under the circumstances, did the school officials violate the students’ constitutional rights to freedom of expression, equal protection, and due process?
The Court held that where school officials learned of threats of race-related violence during a Cinco de Mayo celebration and asked a group of students to remove clothing bearing images of the American flag, turn their shirts inside out, or leave school for the day with an excused absence, the students' freedom of expression claims under the First Amendment and Cal. Const. art. I, § 2(a) failed because it was reasonable for officials to proceed as though the threat of a potentially violent disturbance was real, and the officials' actions were tailored to avert violence and focused on student safety. Moreover, the students' Fourteenth Amendment equal protection claim failed because the students offered no evidence that students at a similar risk of danger were treated differently, and therefore no evidence of impermissible viewpoint discrimination. The Court further averred that the students' due process claim failed. According to the Court, given the school’s need to be able to impose disciplinary sanctions for a wide range of unanticipated conduct disruptive of the educational process, the school disciplinary rules need not be as detailed as a criminal code. In this case, the school’s dress code was in line with others that the federal courts have held to be permissible.