Confederate Flag At Great Barrington School Prompts Free Speech, Student Privacy Debate

Oct 2, 2018

A student came to a high school in the Berkshires last week with the Confederate flag draped over his back. 

The student at Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, was eventually persuaded by schoolmates to remove the racially-charged symbol -- but not before cell phone photos were taken, and posted on social media, by both students and some parents. 

School officials confiscated the flag after another student was later seen wearing it.

The incident has generated debate over free speech and student privacy issues.

Heather Bellow, a reporter with The Berkshire Eagle, wrote about the events at Monument Mountain and joins me. So exactly what happened?

Heather Bellow, The Berkshire Eagle: Well, it was Homecoming Week, and one day had a theme called "America Day." Students wore patriotic attire, and one student came into the school wearing a Confederate flag, sort of draped across his back. There was also an American flag on the side, but the students saw the Confederate flag before they saw anything else, and they asked him to take it off. And he did, eventually. And then, another student was seen with it later, before the assistant principal confiscated it.

Kari Njiiri, NEPR: You write that the ACLU says the school administration's action confiscating the flag crosses the line. How so?

Bill Newman, who is the legal director of the western Massachusetts ACLU office, said that it's the moment of disruption where a student might lose his right to free speech. And he questioned whether this was a real disruption, or the fear of a disruption, which is not the standard that can be applied, he said. So he started to ask all kinds of questions: what will the school ban next? Will they say that it's not OK to wear an American flag? An American flag worn upside down? An Israeli flag? A Palestinian flag? What's next?

Was there any response from the school officials?

School officials said that they were treating the situation as a disruption, and that they are concerned with the right to free speech. But they're trying to sort of strike a balance between what might be a disruption and what a student's rights are.

I understand one school committee member has taken aim at the media's handling of the episode. What's the criticism there?

His thinking was that maybe, you know, what happens in school should stay in school. And he didn't like the culture of cell phone use in school, and that those images then get spread on social media, which which they did quickly. And the culture of parents then getting involved, and then the news media picking this up as a story, which it was.

So this is really about privacy.

Yeah, I think the school official who who made these comments is concerned about privacy, and also thinking that, you know, these are adolescents who may be acting out, that it isn't necessarily a valid news story, but it is something that happened in the community, something that stirred the community. And so it was a news story.

But no student names were released to the public, right?

No.

This is not the first racially-charged controversy at Monument Mountain. A couple of years back, I seem to recall an incident regarding a student who was threatened.

Yes, about two years ago, a student threatened an African-American football player at the school. He said that he would lynch him. And it had to do, apparently -- so the story goes -- with that football player having taken a knee during a game. So yes, this situation last week with the Confederate flag, actually sort of fanned the embers that were already smoldering at the school over that racial incident.

So what happens next?

I think there will probably be some community discussions around racial tensions, free speech, privacy issues, cell phone use, social media -- the gamut of everything that came up last week at the school.