Rutherford Institute weighs in on county schools’ hate imagery ban

Local activists have long called for hate symbols including Confederate imagery to be banned in Albemarle County schools. Photo by Eze Amos Local activists have long called for hate symbols including Confederate imagery to be banned in Albemarle County schools. Photo by Eze Amos

Anti-racist activists have spent more than a year advocating for a ban of hate symbols in Albemarle county schools, and after months of the school board deferring an official vote, the superintendent took matters into his own hands last week to prohibit such imagery in the dress code. Now, a constitutional attorney says he better watch out for a lawsuit.

Some school board members had previously voiced their concerns about the legality of such a prohibition—especially in light of the $150,000 First Amendment lawsuit they were smacked with in 2002 for denying a Jack Jouett middle schooler the right to wear his NRA camp shirt to school.

“Images of white supremacy, including Confederate and Nazi imagery, should not be permitted in our schools because they cause substantial disruption,” Superintendent Matt Haas read from a statement at the February 28 school board meeting, where he announced that he will ban explicit symbols, lettering, or any insignia associated with violence or white supremacy.

John Whitehead. Photo by Stephen Canty

John Whitehead, a constitutional attorney and president of the Rutherford Institute, says when policies are as vague and subjective as he says the Albemarle County Public Schools’ policy is, it lays the groundwork for a host of civil liberties violations.

The move is “consistent with a trend being played out in schools across the country—and in the courts—to censor First Amendment activities under the guise of school safety,” says Whitehead. “As a result, even American flag apparel was banned as dangerous in one major case.”

While this and other hate speech policies may make some students feel safer in the short term, he says it’s the Rutherford Institute’s position that they won’t actually make the schools any safer.

“Ultimately, what we must decide is whether the schools are here to censor or are they here to educate?” says Whitehead. “While this ACPS policy is inevitably going to result in a legal challenge, it’s not going to resolve the underlying problem of racism in our community and in our country, which is something that needs to be addressed and discussed openly and worked out in an open, supportive environment by the students and mediated by school officials.”