The Daily Tar Heel

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Thursday December 1st

Fayetteville teacher suspended for freedom of speech lesson

Lee Francis, a Fayetteville high school history teacher, was suspended last week for stepping on the American flag during a lesson on the First Amendment. 

School officials are in the midst of a full investigation to determine if any further action should be taken.

“I went out to my storage room in my classroom, pulled out a flag, and asked the class to tell me what it was,” Francis said. “Then I asked anybody if they had a lighter or scissors, hearkening back to the Texas v. Johnson case, where the flag was set on fire.”

“I then put the flag on the ground and took about two or three taps of it with my right foot.”

Demi Dowdy, spokesperson for the right-leaning Civitas Institute, said in an email she was disappointed with the teacher's actions. 

“This teacher’s actions are indeed protected by the First Amendment, but it was poor judgment to stomp on … the flag in a Fayetteville classroom not far from Ft. Bragg,” she said. 

Dowdy said many students in the class or their friends probably had family members in the military.

"These families make significant sacrifices for our country and to defend the freedom Mr. Francis exercised in that classroom," she said. 

Kevin McGuire, a UNC political science professor, said he understands why some people are upset.

“For many people, the flag is a precious national symbol, and they, for a variety of very good reasons, want to see the flag honored and respected,” he said.

Dowdy said although Francis was free to stomp on the flag, it wasn't necessary. 

“Could he have made his point to those students without disrespecting and offending them? Absolutely,” she said.

McGuire said Francis has the right to express himself and demonstrate the extent to which people can engage in free speech. 

“There’s no question that he can do what he did outside the context of the public school," he said. 

However, the interests and mission of schools can override a individual's First Amendment rights, McGuire said. 

“The school has the ability to decide what is consistent with its educational mission,” he said. “As a part of that, it might say that there are certain types of behaviors that they do not wish to see among their faculty.”

Francis said he understands the negative response. 

“People are going to be upset,” he said. “I respect their decision to be upset and I’m not going to tell someone that what they’re feeling is wrong.”

However, Francis said he believes people need to be able to discuss what's currently going on in the country. 

“We’re talking about the issues that show America devaluing human life, for example, the LGBT community, the Native Americans in North Dakota having their land taken away from them,” he said.

Francis said the flag is a small part of these larger issues. 

“We’re more focused on a piece of fabric than we are on the fabric of this nation," he said.

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