Court Won't Hear Confederate Case

Monday, October 30th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court declined to get involved Monday in a dispute over a high school student disciplined for displaying a small Confederate battle flag on school grounds.

In a widely reported 1995 incident, Florida student Wayne Denno refused to put the flag away when confronted by a school administrator and was then suspended from school for nine days. Denno alleged a principal called him a racist, and the Florida school system later claimed that Denno was trying to incite a riot.

Denno, a Civil War re-enactor who was then 16, claimed display of his 4-inch battle flag was not racially motivated and was protected under the First Amendment right to free speech.

He also urged another student not to turn his Confederate flag T-shirt inside out as requested by an assistant principal.

Eventually, Denno's mother sued the Volusia County School Board and two administrators on his behalf.

Denno had some success in court, but the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ultimately ruled that the suit should be thrown out.

Denno appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that his right to display the flag trumped the school system's right to regulate his conduct on campus.

In court papers, Denno's lawyers noted the case's turbulent history in court, including dissents from two appeals judges and an unusual decision by the Atlanta-based 11th Circuit to withdraw a previous ruling that allowed Denno to continue with his case against the school administrators.

Denno claimed he was merely showing the flag to some friends at lunchtime and was not disrupting class or offending anyone in the process.

The school district has maintained that the flag is such a controversial symbol that its mere display can be disruptive or hurtful. Relying in part on a Supreme Court decision that balanced student free speech with the school's duty to teach civility, the school claimed that its administrators were within their rights to confront Denno.

Denno cited a Supreme Court decision dating from the Vietnam War era, which said schools could not ban students from wearing black armbands to protest the war.

That case established students' rights to nonconfrontational expression of speech that the school might not like, Denno argued. Without such rights, school administrators get a blank check to curtail free speech, he claimed.

``The ramifications are staggering. School officials may ban any and all symbolic speech with impunity. A Florida Gators cap could be banned because a student with an affinity towards Florida State University might be offended,'' Denno's lawyers wrote. ``Crucifixes worn on a chain around the neck might be prohibited for fear of offending a Jewish student.''

The Sons of Confederate Veterans have subsidized Denno's legal bills, and he has become something of a cause celebre among other groups supporting continued display of the flag.

The school system argued that the Supreme Court did not need to review the case, and claimed that Denno exaggerated the dispute's significance.

The case is Denno v. Volusia County School Board, 00-306.