Hate, heritage and free expression: Orange County Schools to settle Confederate flag debate

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The Orange County Board of Education is debating a controversial policy that could ban students from wearing the Confederate flag. (WTVD)

The Orange County Board of Education is set to vote Monday evening on a controversial policy that could ban students from wearing the Confederate flag.

The proposed revision does not ban the Confederate flag by name, but rather symbols that are "indecent, profane, or racially intimidating that create a reasonable forecast of disruption." However, weeks of debate and a recent town hall meeting in Hillsborough show that the flag is a big part of the issue.

The Hate-Free Schools Coalition has spearheaded the movement to ban the flag from student apparel. It contends the flag is so racially intimidating that it creates an environment where black students do not feel comfortable, thereby interfering with their ability to learn. Other advocacy groups such as the NAACP have supported this position.

"Schools have an obligation to provide an environment that's conducive to learning for all students," said Anna Richards, president of the Chapel Hill NAACP.

Other groups say the flag represents an important part of southern history and should not be censored. In a press release, the NC Sons of Confederate Veterans accused the Hate-Free Schools Coalition of being intolerant in its quest to ban some symbols but not others. It reasoned that if the Confederate flag could be banned, other symbols and references that could be offensive like Black Lives Matter should also be prohibited.

"Groups like the Hate Free Schools Coalition seek to replace facts with feelings, discussion with violence, and inclusiveness with divisiveness," wrote Kevin Stone, commander of the group.

Some have been less interested in the perceived meaning of the flag and instead focused the debate on students' First Amendment rights. A long series of Supreme Court cases have established that students bring their right to free expression into the classroom, though it can be limited in certain contexts.

Mary-Rose Papandrea, a law professor at UNC-Chapel Hill and expert on the First Amendment, said racially intimidating speech is protected and that the school system could face lawsuits if it bans the flag on those grounds. She said if the board wants to ban the flag, its best bet is to consider the history of racial tension in the area. If the board could prove that displaying a flag would aggravate that existing tension enough to cause a substantial disruption in the classroom, the potential ban would stand on stronger legal ground.

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