(CN) - A South Carolina school district did not violate the constitutional rights of a teen by repeatedly barring her from wearing Confederate flag shirts, the 4th Circuit ruled.
Candice Hardwick ran afoul of the Dillon County No. 3 School District's dress code while attending its Latta Middle School in 2003-2004, and the dispute over her choice of shirts continued through her high school years.
The middle school's dress code states that clothing is generally "considered appropriate as long as it does not distract others, interfere with the instructional programs, or otherwise cause disruptions." Examples of disruptive attire include clothing that "displays profane language, drugs, tobacco, or alcohol advertisements, sexual innuendos or anything else deemed to be offensive."
Latta High School also prohibits clothing that's "clearly inappropriate for school," such as "shirts with obscene/derogatory sayings."
Hardwick first clashed with school officials over the dress code in early 2003, when middle school principal Martha Heyward required her to change out of a "Southern Chicks" shirt that displayed the Confederate flag.
She then proceeded to wear six more shirts bearing an image of the Confederate flag, including one honoring "Black Confederates," which displayed a picture of the 1st Louisiana Native Guards, a Confederate regimen consisting mostly of free African-Americans.
In February 2004, she was given in-school suspension for refusing to change a shirt with a picture of Robert E. Lee and the Confederate flag.
The principal also refused to let Hardwick wear what the teen described as a "protest shirt" displaying the American flag with the words "Old Glory" above the flag and "Flew over legalized slavery for 90 years!" beneath it.
After this series of incidents, Hardwick's parents sent a letter to the superintendent of schools, defending their daughter. They said they not only approved of her clothing, but also claimed her shirts reflected her "family heritage and religious beliefs."
School officials explained that, based on Latta's history of racial tension and the potential for misinterpretation of the flag's meaning, the school could prohibit clothing that contained images of the Confederate flag.
Hardwick responded by wearing a shirt to school that said, "Offended by School Censorship of Southern Heritage."
In high school, Hardwick continued to wear shirts with the Confederate flag. Principal George Liebenrood removed her for class for wearing one that read, "Daddy's Little Redneck."
When he asked her to change into another shirt, Hardwick produced four "protest" shirts, all of which were deemed inappropriate. Among these was a shirt that read, "Jesus and the Confederate Battle Flag: Banned from Our Schools, but Forever in Our Hearts."
The following school year, Hardwick wore a T-shirt depicting the state house and grounds -- including the Confederate flag that flies there. She wore the shirt for several days before s chool officials realized the flag was in the picture and made her change shirts.
Hardwick and her parents sued the school district and the principals of its middle and high schools, claiming they violated her constitutional rights by barring her from wearing Confederacy-themed clothing.
In 2009, a federal judge sided with the defendants and the federal appeals court in Richmond, Va., agreed.
"The record contains ample evidence from which the school officials could reasonably forecast that all of these Confederate flag shirts 'would materially and substantially disrupt the work and disclipline of the school,'" Judge Dennis Shedd wrote, citing the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District,
which established the basic framework governing student speech.
While Hardwick relied on recent disciplinary records from her schools to argue that her shirts were not likely to cause a disruption, the three-judge panel found that these records captured only a short period of time and ignored a long history of racial tension in the small town of Latta.
"Multiple incidents of racial tension in Latta schools and the potential for such vastly different views among students about the meaning of the Confederate flag provide a sufficient basis to justify the school officials' conclusion that the Confederate flag shirts would cause substantial disruption," Shedd wrote. "Therefore, Candace's First Amendment right was not violated by the school officials when they refused to allow her to wear the Confederate flag shirts at school."
The panel further found that Hardwick's "protest shirts" were also likely to cause disruption, so school officials did not violate her constitutional rights in barring them.
Finally, the court rejected Hardwick's claim that the dress codes violated the 14th Amendment because they were overly broad or vague.
"The school officials explicitly informed Candice on multiple occasions that Confederate flag shirts were not permitted under the dress codes," Shedd wrote. "The dress codes were therefore interpreted by the school officials for Candice in the specific context of her shirts. Nothing in the record plausibly supports any claim that she was unaware of this prohibition on Confederate flag clothing. Thus, the dress codes, both as written and as applied to Confederate flag clothing, are not unconstitutionally vague and Candice's right to due process was not violated."