When Oregon school officials tried to banish political symbols from the classroom, Newberg High School English teacher Gail Grobey delivered a masterful lesson in malicious compliance.
The Newberg School Board singled out the Black Lives Matter and LGBT pride flags for removal and commissioned a blacklist for political paraphernalia. Grobey countered by taking down the American flag, telling the local newspaper, The Newberg Graphic, that the Stars and Stripes is “the most political symbol there is.”
Her protest garnered coverage from Fox News and a rebuke from the American Family Association, whose president blasted “Marxists who are intent on dismantling our Republic” in an overwrought news release.
But conservative critics are sounding a false alarm.
Grobey isn’t the mythical America-hating public school teacher traditionalists too often invoke. She’s a patriot who honors Old Glory in its absence, taking the district’s flag ban to its logical conclusion as a cautionary tale about censorship and its consequences.
The trouble started Aug. 10, when the school board voted 4-3 to direct the Newberg School District’s superintendent to remove BLM and gay pride symbols from district facilities. The board also tapped its policy committee to draft rules that would prohibit display of any political signs, symbols and flags.
Board vice chairman Brian Shannon described the pro-black and pro-LGBT gear as “divisive symbols” that distract schools from their educational mission.
Teacher Stacey Dalton told Oregon Public Broadcasting that the banners are simply “messages of love and support” for students who may feel marginalized for their race or sexual orientation.
Though a second vote is required to enact the policies, the school board’s preliminary approval touched off a swift backlash. The Oregon State Board of Education called on the Newberg board to rescind the measures, and the state American Civil Liberties Union affiliate threatened a lawsuit if the forced flag removal takes effect.
Banning so-called political symbols violates the First Amendment. While teachers can’t indoctrinate students or proselytize to them, they retain the right to express themselves and speak out on matters of public concern.
In a 1968 case, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned an Illinois teacher’s firing for criticizing his school board in a local newspaper.
School districts can’t lawfully implement wholesale bans on political speech, and even if they could, targeting Black Lives Matter symbols and rainbow flags as the first things to go is blatant viewpoint-based discrimination — a cardinal constitutional sin.
In an Aug. 30 letter, ACLU of Oregon legal director Kelly Simon and Portland communications attorney Alan Galloway warned Newberg school leaders that the policies are legally indefensible, noting that the free expression clause in the Oregon Constitution is “independent of, and even broader than, the First Amendment.”
A right-wing voting bloc on the school board apparently bristled at the sight of a few harmless flags in teachers’ classrooms, choosing to interpret the displays as a call to political activism rather than an understated show of support for students’ identities. The standoff will test supporters’ conservative bona fides.
Pressing ahead with the policies would leave taxpayers on the hook for legal fees in a case the school district is guaranteed to lose. That’s wasteful and fiscally irresponsible.
And even if the flags are unpopular with social conservatives, a heavy-handed ban seems out of character for self-styled crusaders against cancel culture. So much for that small-government spiel.
The school board said the American and Oregon flags would be exempt from its laundry list of prohibited symbols, but that contradictory carve-out undermines the board’s intent to make district schools a political purgatory.
If local officials had such sweeping powers (rest assured that they don’t), courts might, at minimum, require consistency. No BLM flag, no Old Glory. Government agencies don’t get to play favorites.
Opportunists will try to paint Grobey, who reluctantly retired her U.S. flag, as a radical leftist who’s insufficiently patriotic. The American Family Association already tried. Don’t fall for that cynical ploy.
Loyalty to the Constitution — that other cherished national symbol too often used as a convenient political prop — means more than genuflecting to a cloth rectangle.
She’s showing school board members what’s left when censors are through with their tasks: bare walls and empty flagpoles.
— Corey Friedman is an opinion journalist who explores solutions to political conflicts from an independent perspective. Follow him on Twitter: @coreywrites. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.