Teen Sues School District Over Confederate Flag Prom Dress

(LEXINGTON, Ky., December 21st, 2004, 11:30 a.m.) -- A Greenup County teenager is suing the school district for barring her from the prom for wearing a red dress styled as a large Confederate battle flag.

School officials kept Jacqueline Duty out of Russell High School's May 1 prom for wearing the dress, calling it too controversial.

Duty, 19, is suing the school district in U.S. District Court in Lexington, claiming the district and administrators violated her First Amendment right to free speech and her right to celebrate her heritage. She also is suing for defamation, false imprisonment and assault.

"Her only dance for her senior prom was on the sidewalk to a song playing on the radio," said Earl-Ray Neal, her lawyer.

She also plans to sue for actual and punitive damages in excess of $50,000.

Duty met with reporters in front of the federal courthouse in Lexington on Monday.

She acknowledged that some might find the Confederate flag offensive.

"Everyone has their own opinion. But that's not mine. I'm proud of where I came from and my background," Duty said.

She also showed the dress.

"I wanted to show part of my Southern heritage," she said, explaining why she wanted to wear the dress. She said she had worked on the dress' design for four years.

Duty is attending Shawnee State University in Ohio.

Kirk Lyons, one of her lawyers, said Duty waited several months to file the lawsuit because much of the legal work is being done for free. The Sons of Confederate Veterans also vowed help pay for some of the legal expenses.

Duty was told not to wear the dress by school officials shortly before the prom, but she said she didn't have another dress, so she decided to go and see if school administrators would change their minds.

Howard, the principal, and two police officers met her outside the school, according to the lawsuit.

"Howard intimidated (Duty) by physically striking the vehicle in which she was sitting," the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit says that after the prom, school officials made students wearing Confederate symbols change or remove the items even though the symbols were not creating any disruption in the predominantly white high school in northeast Kentucky.

No one from the Russell Independent Board of Education or from Superintendent Ronnie Back's office could be reached for comment. Back and Howard also are named in the lawsuit.

Federal court opinions on the display of the Confederate flag on clothing at public schools has been mixed.

In 2002, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a case involving a Madison County student.

In 1997, Timothy Castorina was suspended for wearing a T-shirt with a Confederate flag on it to Madison Central High School. He sued, but U.S. District Court Judge Henry Wilhoit Jr. ruled that T-shirts were not a form of free speech, and tossed out the case. However, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the decision and ordered a new trial.

The case was settled before the second trial began. As part of the settlement, Madison County revamped its dress code policy.

The U.S. Supreme Court has not heard a case over whether a student can wear Confederate symbols to school.

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)