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Free speech: Can school fire ‘redneck’ over Confederate flag on his truck?

An Oregon school bus driver who refers to himself as a 'backyard redneck' was fired for refusing to remove the Confederate flag from his truck. A federal magistrate upheld his free speech lawsuit.

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This file photo shows Ken Webber in front of the federal courthouse in Medford, Ore., displaying the Confederate flag that got him fired from his job as a school bus driver. A federal magistrate recommended Thursday that Webber's First Amendment lawsuit seeking his job back should go to trial, rather than being dismissed.

AP Photo/Jeff Barnard, File

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An Oregon school bus driver has won the first round of a free speech lawsuit claiming his First Amendment rights were violated when he was fired for refusing to remove a Confederate flag from the back of his pickup truck.

Kenneth Webber had worked as a K-12 bus driver for nearly six years in Oregon’s Jackson County School District 4. But he lost his job after he repeatedly refused a supervisor’s order to remove the three-by-five-foot flag – emblazoned with the work “Redneck” – from his truck while it was parked on school district property.

Mr. Webber filed a lawsuit in federal court charging that his former employer, his former supervisor, and the school superintendent violated his free speech right to express controversial or offensive ideas without facing censorship or punishment from the government.

On Thursday, a federal magistrate upheld the lawsuit, and said Webber’s case should proceed to a trial to determine whether his constitutional rights were violated.

“The law governing Webber's First Amendment rights is clearly established. The display of a flag is an act of symbolic expression protected under the First Amendment,” Magistrate Judge Mark Clarke concluded.

He said there was no evidence in the case that any student had seen Webber’s flag or that the display on his pickup truck had been in any way disruptive to school district operations.

The magistrate judge said that given those facts it appeared that the school district’s interests in preventing the display of a Confederate flag did not outweigh Webber’s constitutional right to freedom of expression.

“The US Supreme Court has held that it is ‘a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment … that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea offensive or disagreeable,’ ” John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, said in a statement.

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