GRANTS PASS, Ore. — A federal magistrate has upheld the First Amendment lawsuit of a 29-year-old public school bus driver who was fired for displaying a Confederate flag (with the word “redneck” emblazoned across it) on his personal vehicle. In issuing a report and recommendation in the case, U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark D. Clarke of the District of Oregon ruled that Kenneth Webber’s claims that his constitutional rights were violated by his employer, First Student, Inc., and officials with Jackson County School District 4 should not be dismissed and should proceed to trial. The ruling found that there was adequate evidence that First Student ordered the flag removed because of objections of the District superintendent and that the District had not demonstrated that Webber’s flag would have disrupted the operations of the school district.
The magistrate’s report is available here.
“The U.S. Supreme Court has held that it is ‘a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment...that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea offensive or disagreeable,’” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. “Ken Webber’s case is a clear example of what happens when free speech and political correctness collide. Yet the question that needs to be asked is not whether the Confederate flag represents racism, but whether banning it leads to even greater problems, namely, the loss of freedom. The answer to that is a resounding yes.”
Kenneth Webber, who was employed by First Student, Inc., a company providing services to the Jackson County School District 4, for four years, began flying the Confederate flag in the bed of his pickup truck in July 2009. The 3-by-5-foot Confederate flag, which has the word “redneck” emblazoned across it, was a birthday gift from Webber’s father. Webber drove his truck to work and parked it in the employee lot, which is leased from the school district, before he reported for his duties driving a K-12 bus for the school district. On March 2, 2011, Webber was called into his supervisor’s office and ordered to remove the flag from his pickup or be suspended from his job. The demand to remove the flag was allegedly made after the school district superintendent visited First Student’s facility and saw the flag on Webber’s truck. The superintendent reportedly requested that Webber remove the flag because some people find that symbol offensive and justified the request by pointing to the fact that the school district is “about 37 percent minority students,” and has a policy against offensive, demeaning or harassing objects.
Insisting on his right to free expression on his personal vehicle, Webber refused the demand, was suspended and was sent home for the day. The following day, Webber reported to work and was called to meet with two managers, who again demanded that he remove the flag or be suspended, this time for three days. Again, Webber refused and was suspended. On March 8, Webber was called into his manager’s office and was terminated after he again refused to remove the flag from his pickup. Attorneys for The Rutherford Institute filed the original complaint in March 2011. Webber has insisted that his display of the Confederate flag does not show him to be a racist but a “backyard redneck. I work for what I have. I support my family. It’s just who I am. I’m a redneck. It’s a way of life.” Rutherford Institute attorneys have asked that Webber be paid for lost wages.