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Disobedient brats no martyrs for freedom

By Ruben Navarrette, Special to CNN
  • Ruben Navarrette: Students wore U.S. flag T-shirts after school said no flag shirts
  • Navarrette: Was a taunt to Latinos; principal asked them to turn shirts inside-out or go home
  • Conservatives hypocritical, he writes, by touting students as martyrs for freedom
  • He writes: They always say right of schools to maintain order trumps students' speech rights

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a member of the San Diego Union-Tribune editorial board, a nationally syndicated columnist and a regular contributor to

San Diego, California (CNN) -- When five students at Live Oak High School in Morgan Hill, California, taunted Latino students by wearing T-shirts bearing the American flag on Cinco de Mayo, even though administrators had told students beforehand not to wear flag clothing that day, they caused a ruckus, divided a community and reignited the culture wars.

And, it turns out, they were just getting warmed up.

The ruckus ensued when Assistant Principal Miguel Rodriguez -- apparently fearing that the boys' fashion choices might provoke a violent response from Latino students who have developed an emotional attachment to the faux holiday as "their day" -- told the youths to either turn their T-shirts inside out or go home.

The lads chose the latter, and were, for this act of defiance, magically transformed from bratty kids to defenders of individual freedom and innocent victims of the establishment.

Why not? Everyone else in society plays the victim. Nothing is ever anyone's fault. Someone else is always to blame. And so why shouldn't these five young men get a chance to portray themselves as an oppressed minority?

This part is even more bizarre: Conservatives are defending the rights of the students because the story fits into their paranoid narrative of cultural displacement -- where the Mexican flag is supplanting Old Glory, Spanish is drowning out English, the tortilla has bread on the run, and so on and on. This is outrageous, conservatives say, as they blast school administrators by accusing them of overstepping their bounds.

Conservatives take this stance, but have spent the better part of the last three decades asserting -- in legal briefs and oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court -- the power of public school administrators to maintain order and prevent disruptive behavior even at the expense of curtailing students' First Amendment rights.

In a classic and clumsy flip-flop, conservatives were against First Amendment rights for public school students on campus before they were in favor of them.

You see, conservatives usually don't give a hoot about whether students have the right to express, on school campuses, their opinion about this or that -- especially if doing so threatens to upset the social order. Now, suddenly, because of the Morgan Hill case, they've found religion and they're ready to side with the American Civil Liberties Union in defense of free speech rights for students? Talk about strange bedfellows.

I got a chance to see this hypocrisy up close last week when I appeared on CNN to discuss the Morgan Hill story with Kris Kobach, conservative legal analyst and law professor. Kobach defended the right of the five students to defy school administrators in exercise of their First Amendment rights to free expression.

He cited case law that is almost as old as I am -- Tinker v Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969). In that case, which involved high school and junior high school students who wore black armbands to protest the Vietnam War and were suspended as a result, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and declared that students don't "shed their constitutional rights to free speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate."

But since Tinker, the justices have curtailed First Amendment rights of students, especially when the expression of those rights is disruptive, in three other cases: Bethel School District v Fraser (1986), where the Supreme Court held that a high school student's speech during an assembly -- filled as it was with sexual innuendo -- was not protected; Hazelwood v Kuhlmeier (1988), where the court held that schools can regulate the content of student newpapers; and Morse v Frederick (2007), where the court held that officials can restrict student speech at a school-supervised event even if it takes place off-campus.

Interestingly, in the Morse case, the school administrators were represented by no less prominent a conservative than Kenneth Starr, the former Whitewater Independent Counsel.

The truth is that school administrators have a greater ability to restrict the speech of their students than the government does to restrict the speech of the general public. That's what the Supreme Court has said repeatedly in the last three decades, and that's the way it is.

Some of this should sound familiar to conservatives. This has been their argument for years. No matter how they feel about what happened at Live Oak High School on Cinco de Mayo, the least they can do is claim it. They should be proud to do so. School administrators need the power to keep order and enforce codes of decency.

Just look at what just happened in another, much more offensive case of racial harassment, this one after a high school soccer game in Omaha, Nebraska.

Lincoln East High School and South High School were matched up, and Lincoln East won the game 4-2 in overtime to claim the boys state championship. But now several Lincoln East students admit they made and distributed dozens of "green cards," which fans threw onto the field after the game like confetti.

Why green cards? Because South's soccer team is mostly Latino. Get it? The students behind this ugly act have been suspended.

Glad to hear it.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette, Jr.