Posted on May 17, 2018

Big Sky High School Student Suspended for Repeatedly Wearing Confederate Flag Sweatshirt

Lucy Tompkins, Missoulian, May 16, 2018

A Big Sky High School student was suspended from school Tuesday for repeatedly wearing a Confederate flag sweatshirt, despite the administration’s requests that he take it off.

Mitchell Ballas, 17, said he’s wearing the sweatshirt to stand up for students’ First Amendment rights to freedom of speech. After one of his friends at Big Sky was asked not to wear a Confederate flag hat, Ballas bought the sweatshirt and began wearing it to school every day.

“I know what the school is doing is wrong,” Ballas said. “I’m doing everything in my legal right to wear this sweatshirt. The school is in the wrong for saying they can dictate me wearing this sweatshirt. They’re saying it’s offending kids and it’s derogatory and all that, but it’s not. It’s my First Amendment right.”


Big Sky Principal Natalie Jaeger said {snip} that in the last month several students have been displaying the Confederate flag on clothing and cars. Each time, other Big Sky students have reported it to the administration because they felt “alarmed,” Jaeger said.

In total, about 30 students have come to the administration feeling anxious or afraid because of the Confederate flag displays, Jaeger said. {snip}


Ballas said he began wearing his sweatshirt last Wednesday, and was asked to take it off. He said he did, but then wore it to school the next day, when he was again asked to take it off. When he wore it to school again on Friday, he said he was given detention for two days.

When he didn’t stop wearing it, he was given in-school suspension, which he attended wearing the sweatshirt. In response, he was given out-of-school suspension on Tuesday.


Ballas said he looked through the school handbook and dress code and found nothing prohibiting him from wearing the symbol. Jaeger said she consulted with Missoula County Public Schools Superintendent Mark Thane and the school district’s attorney, Bea Kaleva, to make sure she was within her rights.

Kaleva did not respond to a telephone message seeking comment Wednesday afternoon.


School policy states that if a student’s “behavior or its ramifications constitutes a disruption of the learning environment, administrators reserve the right to discipline students who threaten and/or harass their classmates regardless of where or how the specific behavior occurs.”

Ballas said that to him, the flag represents the apostle St. Andrew, who was crucified in the shape of an X because he didn’t feel worthy of being crucified the same way Jesus was. “That hits home for me,” he said.

“I don’t wear it to threaten people, I don’t wear it for white supremacists, I wear it because it’s my First Amendment right, I have the right to wear it, I’m doing it to show the school that you cannot dictate our First Amendment rights.”

Ballas went home and researched several Supreme Court cases, including the Tinker v. Des Moines 1969 decision that {snip} ruled 7-2 in favor of the students who were suspended for wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War, saying in order to censor speech, school officials must be acting on more than a “desire to avoid the discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompany an unpopular viewpoint.”

The majority opinion went on to say that school officials can, however, censor speech if they show that it “materially and substantially interferes with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school.”


The issue becomes more complicated with symbols that are racially charged, Rate said. There isn’t a clear way for administrators to decide what substantial interference with school function looks like.

In 2013, in Hardwick v. Heyward, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit sided with school administrators in South Carolina who prohibited a student from wearing a Confederate flag sweatshirt because of its potential to cause a disruption at the school, which had a long history of segregation.