KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Tommy DeFoe wore his Southern pride on his Confederate flag belt buckle Wednesday as he argued in federal court that a school dress code banning such items violated his free speech rights.
"I am fighting for my heritage and my rights as a Southerner and an American," said the lanky DeFoe, 18, during a break in his trial.
DeFoe says his great-great uncle served in the Confederate army and "died for the South" in the Civil War.
But heritage was not the issue for Anderson County school officials who suspended DeFoe more than 40 times before he received his certificate of completion from the county vocational school last fall.
DeFoe's trial, which began Monday and is being heard by an all-white jury, is the latest in a string of cases across the South since the 1990s challenging dress codes that banned Confederate flag apparel: a prom gown in Kentucky, purses in Texas, T-shirts in Kentucky, South Carolina and Georgia.
It is unusual for such cases to go to a jury trial, however. Most were settled with a payment to the plaintiffs, said DeFoe attorney Kirk Lyons, who has been involved in many of the cases as chief trial lawyer for the North Carolina-based Southern Legal Resource Center. Others were thrown out by the judge.
DeFoe's lawyers claim the issue is whether the school system can ban the Confederate flag, a symbol of racism to some, if it causes no substantial disruption, Lyons said.
But officials in Anderson County, in East Tennessee not far from Knoxville, said they feared racial tension and violence if DeFoe continued to wear his Confederate flag shirts and belt buckle to class.
All sides agree his clothing failed to draw much notice at Anderson High School, where one of 1,160 students is black, or at the vocational school, where all 200 students are white.
But officials worried about the impact at Clinton High School six miles away, where about 100 of 1,200 students are black. Clinton High was the first public school desegregated by court order in the Old South in 1956 and was rocked by three massive explosions that temporarily closed the school in 1958.
"If he had worn at Clinton High what he wore at Anderson High it would have been a riot, somebody would have clobbered him," said county school board chairman John Burrell, one of several officials DeFoe is suing.
Yet Burrell said DeFoe clearly was "challenging the system. He knew the dress code. His father knew the dress code. He signed the dress code. He was challenging it."
Until 2001, the dress code for all Anderson County schools specifically banned the Confederate flag. Then the policy was rewritten to more general language "because we were afraid we would leave something out," Burrell said. Still, he said it was understood Confederate flag apparel wasn't allowed.
DeFoe's lawsuit questions why other symbols aren't banned, including the Mexican flag, the Canadian flag, political campaign buttons and images of Martin Luther King Jr.
He said other students wore Confederate flag clothing without consequence.
"I felt like I was the one who stood up for" what he believed in, he said.