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Why an NC teacher was suspended for stepping on the American flag

A high school teacher stepped on the flag to demonstrate the strength of the First Amendment. But his action was not taken as expected.

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Over 2,000 American flags are displayed in memory of each victim who died Sept. 11, 2001, at sunset at a display to commemorate the 15th anniversary of 9/11 at Sun City in Huntley, Ill.

Sarah Nader/Northwest Herald/AP/File

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A high school teacher in North Carolina wanted to show his students how the First Amendment protected their rights – and he did it by literally stepping on the American flag to demonstrate that the act is protected under the law.

But it wasn’t taken the way he intended. Two students walked out, and since then, the teacher has been put on administrative leave and received backlash from school officials and parents who claimed that he is showing disrespect to his country. Despite all that, Lee Francis, who teaches at Massy Hill Classical High School in Fayetteville, N.C., maintains that what he did was for a good educational purpose and was a protected form of speech.

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"Ironically enough, I feel like I was being a good American citizen by telling the students about the rights granted to them by the highest court in the country," Mr. Francis told The Washington Post on Wednesday. "It saddens me that people have taken such a negative turn."

Francis’s decision to stand by his actions despite the potential to offend is part of the wider debate about the role of the First Amendment and whether or not the protection it offers can be stretched to the point of being harmful, especially when it comes to issues of national pride. Another recent example is football athlete Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the US national anthem during games as his protest against what he sees as American injustice toward blacks and other minorities.

Both Mr. Kaepernick and Francis were criticized as unpatriotic and disrespectful. Even if their actions are lawful, argue some of their critics, they could hurt others who may feel deeper connections to the national symbols. Where should the balance be struck?

First Amendment rights must be upheld, Steve Shiffrin, an emeritus professor of law at Cornell University, tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. But the good news for those who are upset is that their right to criticize hurtful words or actions is protected by the same law.

“The balance is struck if you recognize that people have a right to desecrate the flag – the flag stands for Constitution and the Constitution stands for freedom of speech,” he says. “On the other hand people are permitted to criticize."

Prof. Shiffrin adds that "the government should not be allowed to penalize those who desecrate the flag.”

Desecrating the flag – including burning it – is a form of protected dissent recognized by the court in the US Supreme Court Texas v Johnson case in 1990. Since then, the tussle between reverence for a national symbol and the drive to uphold free speech has been been tested numerous times, particular by politicians eager to overturn the ruling, but none have succeeded.

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Some supporters of protecting the rights of those who criticize the US or deface its flag argue – like Francis – that those who engage in these actions are actually patriotic. They are fully exercising the freedom granted by the country they love to improve its flaws.

This view of patriotism may be more prevalent among Millennials, suggested Ben Rosen in his coverage of the Kaepernick controversy for The Christian Science Monitor. Millennials, Rosen noted, prefer to express a more active expression of patriotism, a preference echoed by Francis.

“Not only was the demonstration warranted and justified based on the court, it’s warranted and justified in the rights we have. This is the law of the land upheld by the highest court. Freedom of speech is not just defined verbally by something you say or write down on paper, but something that can also be a physical action,” Francis told the Fayetteville Observer.

The question then becomes if Francis used the right method to demonstrate the lesson – especially since the school is located in Fayetteville, a city heavily populated with military personnel and home of Fort Bragg, the largest military base by population in the country. Indeed, one of the students who walked out of the class in protest said he was insulted because his father is in the Army.

“With the County getting so much funding for our military kids at this school, I ask the question of mutual respect, nothing less, nothing more,” a parent wrote in a Facebook post obtained by the News and Observer. “That flag might not mean anything to that teacher, but it means a lot to us and it means a lot to the families who had their service member come home to them in a casket with that flag draped over it.”

Cumberland County Schools Superintendent Frank Till Jr. said, as reported by the Fayetteville Observer, that he believed there were better ways to teach about free speech and First Amendment rights.

Till has said that he wants to gather more information before deciding what to do. North Carolina makes it a misdemeanor to defile or trample on the flag, but the Supreme Court decision would override the state law.

Francis will meet with the Cumberland County Schools officials on Thursday to discuss the incident. He told the paper that the school’s principals, some teachers, and students have expressed support for him – in contrast to the death threats he says he has received on social media. Francis says he was surprised by the backlash his lesson has generated.

“We have a level of students that are mature and are expected to be mature,” he said. “So no, that was not the reaction I was expecting.”

Joan Bertin, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, said in a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor that she agrees with Francis’s views that students should be exposed to lessons that may be sensitive and controversial.

Amid all the discussions about Kaepernick and Black Lives Matter protests, Francis’s actions, Bertin says, serve a particularly relevant lesson that high school students should learn even if it might make them uncomfortable.

“I can see an entirely legitimate discussion of what does patriotism mean when you’re really mad at something government officials are doing and what you are doing to express that,” Bertin says. “Could he have done it differently? Probably so, but that’s kind of a 20/20 hindsight.”