Conservatives' short memories on school protests

What's really at the heart of that story from 2010 where five students at Live Oak High School in Morgan Hill, Calif., conspired to wear T-shirts bearing the American flag? Was it patriotism? Or petulance?

Given that it happened on May 5 - "Cinco de Mayo" - and given that the students had been told by administrators not to wear the shirts but did so anyway, the answer is petulance.

That's how Assistant Principal Miguel Rodriguez saw it. Concerned that the boys' fashion choices might provoke a violent response from Latino students who see Cinco de Mayo as "their day," Rodriguez told the five to either turn their T-shirts inside out or go home. The boys chose to leave.

For what it's worth, Cinco de Mayo is not a real holiday in Mexico and its celebration can more easily be traced to the marketing arm of U.S. beer companies. Still, some Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in the United States have adopted it, and so it's become a cultural battlefield.

If what happened at Live Oak High School were really about a surge of patriotism, what are the odds that the students would pick that day to sing "Yankee Doodle Dandy"? The answer: One in 365.

Latino students had planned a celebration of this pseudo Mexican holiday, and the T-shirt five - who have since played the victim and sued the school for allegedly violating their First Amendment rights - wanted to spoil the party.

Recently, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals let stand a lower-court ruling that backed up the school administrators, and thus dealt another legal blow to the five students.

Besides causing a ruckus, the T-shirt brigade also stoked the culture wars, which never seem to end.

In 2010, a group of students from Lincoln East High School in Omaha, Neb., was suspended for making and distributing dozens of "green cards" in preparation for a soccer game with South High School, which is largely Hispanic. Lincoln East fans tossed the cards onto the field after the game like racist confetti.

In 2012, a San Antonio high school basketball game between Alamo Heights, a mostly white suburban school, and Edison, a predominantly Hispanic school, turned ugly when Alamo fans - apparently believing they were at the Olympics - started chanting "USA, USA!" Most of the Edison players were Mexican-American. This makes them part of the USA, even if some suggested otherwise.

At Live Oak High School, the story was never about the right to display the American flag. It was always about one thing: preserving something that the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized at least three times in the last 30 years - the authority of school administrators to maintain order and keep students safe.

That's why, as the Live Oak case continues to make it way through the courts, the teenage patriots will likely keep losing. The precedent is on the side of the school and its administrators.

This is the delicious part: While many conservatives, most notably those on cable or talk radio shows, eagerly took up the students' cause on free speech grounds, the cases that are working against the students in the courtroom were originally argued by - wait for it - conservatives.

Ironically, the one leg that the students have to stand on dates back to a case filed by liberals. In 1969, in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, the Supreme Court ruled that students who were suspended for wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War didn't "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate."

But since Tinker, the Supreme Court has repeatedly trimmed the First Amendment rights of students - again with a push from conservatives.

It did so in Bethel School District v. Fraser (1986), in which the justices held that a high school student's speech during an assembly - filled with sexual innuendo - was not protected. It struck the same note in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier (1988), in which the justices held that schools could control the content of student newspapers. And, they court drove home that message again in Morse v. Frederick (2007), in which it held that school officials can restrict student speech at a school-sponsored event even if it is off-campus.

Conservatives do have short memories. What do they really believe anymore, and what are their guiding principles? I don't think even they know.

Ruben Navarrette's email address is

© 2014, The Washington Post Writers Group

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