The Volokh Conspiracy

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Nebraska school urges students not to fly American flags on their cars, 'out of an abundance of caution'



Margaret Reist (Lincoln Journal Star) reports:

Concerns about student safety [stemming from potential confrontations] and potential disruptions prompted administrators at Lincoln Public Schools' Career Academy to ask welding students not to fly U.S. flags on their vehicles from holders they made in class….

The directive prohibiting displaying the flags in the school's parking lot was prompted by an incident on Friday, when a Southeast Community College student [for unknown reasons] removed one of the flags from a holder and put it in the bed of a pickup next to the vehicle flying the flag.

Seven or eight welding students had flown the flags in recognition of Veterans Day with permission of Career Academy officials, who thought it was a great ending to the students' welding project, [Career Academy Director Dan] Hohensee said….

"[O]ut of an abundance of caution" for both LPS and SCC students, Career Academy administrators asked students not to fly the flags again in the parking lot.

Hohensee said administrators worried that another such incident could result in a personal confrontation or property damage….

That's different than flying a full-sized flag, which was appropriate on Veterans Day but on other days could be misinterpreted in light of the divisive election and anxiety like that expressed by Nebraska Latinos in a recent news story, Hohensee said.

Isn't there a passage about that in the Star-Spangled Banner—"from abundance of caution was gallantly lowered"?

Fortunately, Lincoln Public Schools Superintendent Steve Joel has disavowed the school's request:

"We respect the rights of students to display their flags. We should not have asked our students to remove them. We believe that decision was in error and we believe this could easily and understandably have been misinterpreted as infringing on rights of freedom of expression and speech."

Yet the initial decision—which echoes a California school's prohibition some years ago on students wearing the American flag on Cinco de Mayo—remains troubling. And it's troubling also for how it bears on the debates about immigration.

I think having more legal immigration to America is important to continued American greatness. (I say this as an immigrant myself, but I think non-immigrants have reason to take the same view.) But if immigration means reduction in our rights as Americans—the right to fly American flags, whether as a sign of patriotism or as an expression of sentiments critical of immigration, the right to own guns, or other rights—then those costs to freedom may well outweigh the benefits that immigration might provide.

If our leaders make clear that they will act boldly to defend our rights, whether against threats from recent immigrants (or the children of recent immigrants) or from the native-born, then we might feel that our rights will indeed remain secure. But if their reaction is to urge people to refrain from exercising their rights, "out of an abundance of caution"—on the theory that flying our country's flags might yield "personal confrontation or property damage" because it "could be misinterpreted in light of the divisive election and anxiety like that expressed by Nebraska Latinos in a recent news story"—then we have legitimate cause to worry about the consequences of immigration for our freedoms.