Tommy DeFoe wore his Southern pride on his Confederate flag belt buckle Wednesday as he argued in federal court that a school dress code banning such items violated his free speech rights.
“I am fighting for my heritage and my rights as a Southerner and an American,” said the lanky DeFoe, 18, during a break in the trial that started Monday in his lawsuit against the Anderson County School Board and several county education officials.
DeFoe says his great-great uncle served in the Confederate army and “died for the South” in the Civil War.
But heritage was not the issue for school officials in Anderson County, in East Tennessee not far from Knoxville, who suspended DeFoe more than 40 times for violating the dress code before he received his certificate of completion from the county vocational school last fall.
They feared DeFoe’s Confederate flag shirts and belt buckle could inflame racial tensions and violence.
DeFoe’s lawsuit is the latest in a string of cases across the South since the 1990s challenging dress codes that banned Confederate flag apparel: a prom gown in Kentucky, purses in Texas, T-shirts in Kentucky, South Carolina and Georgia.
The all-white jury in DeFoe’s case deliberated two hours and will resume work Thursday.
DeFoe’s lawyer claims the issue is whether the school system can ban the Confederate flag, a symbol of racism to some that has been widely associated with the Ku Klux Klan, if it causes no substantial disruption.
All sides agree DeFoe’s clothing failed to draw much notice at Anderson High School, where one of 1,160 students is black, or at the vocational school, where all 200 students are white.
But racial tension had been a problem before at Anderson High, where the arrival of two black students a few years ago was met with racist graffiti and a Confederate flag-raising.
Until 2001, the dress code for all Anderson County schools specifically banned the Confederate flag. Then the policy was rewritten to more general language “because we were afraid we would leave something out,” Burrell said. Still, he said it was understood Confederate flag apparel wasn’t allowed.