A former student from Richland Township High School posted a picture to Facebook that has prompted a police investigation. It wasn’t a picture of a drug deal. It wasn’t a nude photo of a minor. It wasn’t a picture of an assault, or a murder. It was a picture of a male student, “disrespecting” the American flag.
The photo in question features a male student standing on a flag, while a female standing near him “flips off” the camera. According to KDKA, the boy’s mother says that he did a “stupid and impulsive thing,” and that he has apologized.
Somebody needs to introduce the good folks of western Pennsylvania to court decisions involving flag desecration. In 1989, in a case known as “Texas v. Johnson,” the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that flag burning (and therefore other types of abuse of the flag) was protected speech. That 5-4 decision created some strange bedfellows on the court, as liberal justices Thurgood Marshall, William Brennan, and Harry Blackmun were joined in the majority by conservatives Anthony Kennedy and Antonin Scalia.
Apparently, some 26 years later, news of that ruling hasn’t reached the Johnstown, Pennsylvania area. On February 14, the Richland Township School District posted this on Facebook:
“Appropriate legal discipline?” If it was found that the student used a flag belonging to the school district in the photo, then he could be in trouble for defacing public property or such. But if the flag belonged to him, or to a friend, there’s this little thing called the “First Amendment” that is going to get in the district’s way. Because, unlike those folks who post stupid things on social media, then cry “First Amendment” when their employer fires them, the school district is a government agency, which means they cannot take action against protected speech.
Still, those facts didn’t stop the local police department from issuing the following statement:
The Richland Township Police Department has become aware of a disrespectful picture being passed along through Facebook. We have been in contact with the Richland School District and will work with them in resolving this issue. Thank you to everyone who took time to notify us of this situation.
KDKA says that the police department sent officers to the school when the students returned from the long Presidents’ Day weekend on Tuesday “to make sure that there were no problems.” Did they expect problems that school officials couldn’t handle? Or was the idea, which obviously was agreed to by the school district, more to intimidate than to keep the peace? On February 17 the school district seemed to be almost mocking the student in the photo, and any other students who may agree with him, by sharing this post on Facebook:
We Americans love our symbols, and we get very upset when someone uses one of them to make a statement that we do not like. But as the Supreme Court affirmed in the “Johnson” decision:
If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the Government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.
Here’s a video report from WPXI:
Featured image via WPXI screen capture