Federal lawsuit over Confederate Flag ban being heard in East Tennessee

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) -- School systems across the nation will be watching as a federal jury in Knoxville decides if a ban on the confederate flag in Anderson County is acceptable, or if school officials crossed the line of free speech.

After 13 out-of-school suspensions for wearing clothing that had the confederate flag on it, Tommy DeFoe is continuing his fight over the right to wear the clothing, and this time a federal jury could make history with their decision.

Tommy DeFoe is out of school, but now he’s in court wearing a belt buckle with a Confederate flag like the one that got him suspended from a school in Anderson County.

A distant relative of a Confederate veteran, DeFoe is suing the school system, claiming it's his heritage and right to free speech while the school system says their ban is justified because it might offend someone.

After a jury was selected, attorneys put forth their opening statements. For the plaintiffs, attorney Van Irion told the jury "DeFoe's father taught him his history, but the school board decided it (the Confederate flag) is so bad it had to be banned from every school.”

Then school board attorney Arthur Knight addressed the jury telling them the "school is overwhelmingly white. If they have one black student, they have a duty to keep him safe."

The plaintiffs called four witnesses, including three school officials and a former student.

School board chairman Dr. John Burrell could not point to any racial incidents at the school that related to the flag, but said Oreo Cookies were once thrown at a basketball student of mixed race.

Irion asked if Oreo Cookies were banned from the school.

Burrell told the court that they weren’t.

Former student Ryan Miller told jurors he wore clothing with the Confederate Flag from Dixie Outfitters to school, but never had anyone complain.

Former principal Sidney Spiva referred to trying to look out for inappropriate clothing as "a constant battle."

This case could also be a first.

Southern Legal Resource Center attorney Kirk Lyons says many confederate flag cases are heard before judges and appellate courts but this may be the first, certainly in a generation, of one actually going to a jury.

Plaintiffs will resume their case Tuesday morning.

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