Confederate controversy

April 23, 2012


TAHLEQUAH — When 17-year-old Matthew Newcomb started flying the Confederate battle flag in the bed of his truck, he was admittedly doing what he thought was “cool,” going along with what a few of his friends were doing.

But flying that flag – which Newcomb believes is wrongly perceived in the U.S. as a symbol of racism and hatred – has turned into something he never expected. In just a matter of weeks, he has been called an ignorant “redneck” and received a gun threat on Facebook. And he’s been at odds with administrators at Tahlequah High School, which prompted top officials from the Oklahoma affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union to review the issue.

“After I’d been flying the flag for about a week, a buddy showed me a Facebook post,” he said. “A woman had taken a picture of my truck with the flag in it, and said, ‘Way to show your ignorance, redneck.’”

Newcomb took offense, but not at being called a “redneck” – he readily admits he’s a hard-working “country boy.” What bothered him was the inference that he is ignorant for flying the flag.

His mother, Michelle Armstrong, told him not to fly off the handle at the woman’s comment, but to first do some research.

“It was important to me that, before he mouthed off at that lady for calling him ignorant, he made sure he wasn’t ignorant, that he understood what he was doing,” said Armstrong.

She suggested a few readings, and Newcomb took the challenge to heart. For several weeks, he’s been glued to his computer screen, pushing the Internet data plan on his cell phone to its maximum allocation.

“There’s so much that I never would have known if I hadn’t started flying the flag,” said Newcomb.

“I read the Confederate constitution, and I read the secession letters. People say, ‘Oh, the flag represents slavery.’ That’s not even why the war started. The war started because [the South] wanted to get away from federal law.”

Newcomb acknowledges slavery played a role in the American Civil War, but said he believes the overarching theme was self-reliance.

He stresses he isn’t racist, and has friends from many different backgrounds and cultures. He only wants to highlight what he feels was the overall message of the South during the war.

“There was no one to rely on but themselves,” said Newcomb. “They didn’t take loans from other countries when they were trying to start. All the money they used to start up the Confederacy was from the people who lived in the South. They relied on themselves for everything they needed. They didn’t ask for anything. That’s Southern pride.”

Newcomb eventually responded to the woman who’d called him an “ignorant redneck.” He used his research to compile his response, which read in part: “For the record, neither the content, nor the design [of the Confederate flag] have anything to do with racism, slavery, hatred or white supremacy, or anything worse.”

In recent weeks, Newcomb has displayed the flag in the back of his truck and driven to the THS campus. His pattern has been to arrive every morning for an early class and place the flag inside the cab of the truck, where it stayed until the end of the school day.

Then, on April 2, a THS administrator told him he needed to be “more street-smart,” Newcomb said.

“That’s how he said it to me; it was strange,” said Newcomb. “He didn’t tell me to take the flag down or anything.”

Newcomb said he was later summoned to a THS office, and administrators asked to voluntarily stop flying the Confederate flag. Apparently, some students had complained.

“I told them no, because that’s how I felt,” said Newcomb.

“Then another principal said they had fielded complaints about my driving on campus.”

Newcomb said school officials threatened to forbid him from parking in the THS lot – not because of the flag, but for what they said were unrelated complaints about Newcomb’s driving habits. Newcomb contends the first stemmed from a transmission problem with his truck, and the second complaint was lodged after his vehicle hit a gravel patch and slung some of the gravel.

“They told me they would suspend me from parking, and I’m like, ‘Well, if I take my flag down will you let me drive?’ Prior to that, they said neither things had anything to do with each other,” he said. “And then [a THS principal] said if I’d take it down, he’d take the suspension away.”

Newcomb’s mother asked for that agreement in writing, but says one of the principals denied her request, and added he’d withdraw his decision if the family wasn’t content with the verbal agreement. Later, Newcomb said he was called to a meeting with THS administrators and told that flying the flag, or displaying it in any way, would subject him to punishment – including suspension, and after three offenses, expulsion from school.

“Flying that flag is my constitutional right, my freedom of speech and expression,” said Newcomb. “It’s not earned; I get that for just being born in this country.”

TPS Superintendent Dr. Shannon Goodsell confirmed Friday the district does not permit flying the Confederate flag on school property.

“Ultimately, for the school district, the flag being on campus created an academic disruption to the school day,” said Goodsell.“The issue the school district has is that the flag was displayed on school property during school hours, and it represented, or became, a symbolism of racism, making students upset. Students projected racism and bigotry as a result of the flag, and that is something the district will not tolerate or accept in a public setting. TPS is about education, and our focus is centered on education.”

Goodsell said that while he is precluded under privacy laws from directly discussing a particular student, TPS is a multi-cultural, diverse district, and administrators want to honor and protect all races, all nationalities, and all beliefs while creating a safe educational environment.

“The school district cannot accept or allow any forms of racism that threaten our student population, or that prohibit the academic process of that site,” said Goodsell.

“We believe everyone has the right to a free and appropriate education, and that the high school is not the forum to express that type of speech.”

Newcomb and his mom disagree with the district’s position. Armstrong contacted the Oklahoma affiliate of the ACLU, and Executive Director Ryan Kiesel traveled to Tahlequah Friday to meet with the family and TPS officials during a due-process hearing.

“First, I want to make it clear the ACLU is not defending the Confederate flag,” Kiesel told the Daily Press after the meeting. “Our interest in this is that we, as the defenders of the Bill of Rights and constitution in the state of Oklahoma, want to make sure that any time the government – in this case, the school district – wants to limit or censor an individual’s speech, that they meet the compelling justifications required by the Constitution. Anytime we hear a report of a government entity limiting speech or censoring speech, regardless of whether a majority of folks might find that speech offensive, we take it upon ourselves to ensure there are no violations of civil rights or the Constitution.”

Kiesel said the Oklahoma ACLU’s goal isn’t to file litigation, but instead to review the case, talk to all parties involved, and resolve the issue without a lawsuit.

“We’ve asked the school [to] articulate to the student and his family, then to the ACLU, why they’re taking that action,” Kiesel said, speaking of TPS’ prohibiting display of the Confederate flag.

“It’s important to remember that, while schools do have some constitutionally permissible discretion in limiting the speech rights of their students and teachers, the Supreme Court has held that you don’t lose your constitutional rights when you walk into the school.”

Kiesel believes TPS officials will respond to the request, and Goodsell confirmed Friday that administrators are compiling a report to submit to the ACLU.

“Our end goal is to make sure the rights of the students are protected and recognized, and so long as the school does that, then there’s really no need for further action on our part,” said Kiesel.

Following Friday morning’s hearing, Armstrong said school officials issued a four-day suspension to her son for flying the Confederate flag.

“And they claim Matthew had made some threats based on race,” said Armstrong.

“Of course, none of that was mentioned until today, and they don’t seem to have means of backing that up.”

Armstrong said she’s willing to pursue whatever means necessary to clear up what she sees as a clear civil rights violation.

“When this began, Matthew was flying the flag because it’s the thing rebel redneck boys do – they fly their rebel flag,” said Armstrong.

“I wanted him to not be one of the crowd. I wanted him to know and make an informed decision about his choice. I do feel like my son’s civil rights are being violated – and not just my son, but students at-large. Students aren’t being taught lessons on constitutionality. And not just regarding this flag, but regarding expressions of their individuality, which would not hurt a fly.”

Newcomb wants his critics to “look outside the box” before rushing to judgment.

“I want the school to recognize what they’ve done wrong, and I want to get recognition for not being racist, for truly standing up for what I feel is right and what I believe in,” said Newcomb. “Don’t assume, ‘Oh, they’re racist because they have a flag,’ or, ‘Oh, they’re a troubled teen because of how they express themselves with their hair.’ It’s not like that. Ask that person what it means to them.”

© 2012 Community Newspaper Holdings, Inc.

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