Opinion: First Amendment protects students’ Trump flag

Grant Strobl
Grosse Pointe South High School

School administrators who ripped a flag supporting President Donald Trump out of the hands of students at a football game at Grosse Pointe South High School need a lesson on free speech.

More:Pro-Trump flag removed at Grosse Pointe football game

As the Supreme Court boldly stated in the landmark 1969 case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” Like the students in Tinker who wanted to protest the Vietnam War wearing wristbands, these students at Grosse Pointe South chose a similarly benign act of holding a flag supporting the president — at an America-themed football game no less.

What was the school’s excuse for ripping the flag out of the students' hands? It violated policy and it was "political.”

But the policy administrators rely on does not apply to this situation. The policy refers to distribution of materials from outside organizations and states that materials cannot be “posted on certain school system fences” without approval. It is far-fetched to say holding a flag over a fence amounts to distribution of materials or posting on a fence. At best, the students are guilty of distributing ideas. 

Further, administrators apparently don’t even know their own policies. The policy requires enforcement in a “neutral and nondiscriminatory manner,” yet it was unduly enforced against only one student and not the several other students also draping flags over the fence as required by the policy.

Of course, the real issue is not the fence or youth advocacy. It is the administrators’ disdain of Trump.

The school district did not prohibit flags. Only the Trump flag was confiscated. Even if it was the only political flag, the school had no authority to do it, especially in the stands of a public football game.

The stands of a public school sports event is the epicenter of free speech, where cheering, yelling, sign-holding and other types of expression are traditionally expected and encouraged. Moreover, students, parents and the general public are invited to participate. Candidates for local public office have even worn paraphernalia advocating for their election at these games. The First Amendment gives this type of context, known as a “traditional public forum,” the most protection, which includes political speech.

It would be a poor excuse to justify the confiscation of such political flags due to fear of disruption to school functions or safety. If this were the case, classes on history and government could not be held.

A flag held by a student is no more dangerous than a cup of scalding hot chocolate. The real disruption and threat to safety at school functions were not the students bearing a flag advocating their beliefs, but the disgruntled administrators who continuously make headlines attempting to squash youth participation in the political process.

As noted in Tinker, public schools “may not be enclaves of totalitarianism.” Administrators at Grosse Pointe South High School violate this principle by stomping on students' rights. I fully expect a sea of Trump flags at the next football game.

Grant Strobl is a juris doctor candidate at the University of Chicago Law School and an alumnus of Grosse Pointe North High School.