The following editorial appeared in the Fayetteville Observer:
There are times when the exercise of our core freedoms is best seasoned with common sense. It’s unfortunate that Lee Francis lacks that essential ingredient on his spice rack.
Francis, a history teacher at Massey Hill Classical High School in Fayetteville, touched off a national furor when he taught a class on freedom of speech and demonstrated it by stepping on an American flag.
A photo and account of the civics lesson were posted on Facebook and quickly went viral – and not in a pleasant way.
Francis was teaching a class about the First Amendment and a 1989 U.S. Supreme Court decision that said burning an American flag is a constitutionally protected form of “symbolic speech.”
According to some accounts of the incident, Francis first asked if anyone in the classroom had a lighter. When no one did, he dropped the flag on the floor and stepped on it.
Now, we have a great appreciation of the First Amendment, for more reasons than most, since our own industry is singled out for protection. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” it says, “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
The 1989 high court decision in Texas v. Johnson said that although many people find flag-burning offensive, that’s not justification for suppressing free speech.
That’s the same decision Cumberland District Attorney Billy West cited as the reason he won’t take action against Francis, despite a state law that prohibits flag desecration. “It conflicts with federal law, and federal law controls,” he said.
While he didn’t break the law, he still delivered a boneheaded, tone-deaf insult to a community and a school that are exceptionally patriotic and have strong connections with the military. There are better ways to teach about protections for extreme speech – videos of other incidents, for example.
What Francis did won’t justify firing him, even though it would be a popular move. But our community deserves a sincere apology and reassurance that this sort of inflammatory lesson plan won’t be seen in our classrooms again. Even though the courts have ruled that Francis can do it, stomping on the flag isn’t a smart teaching technique in a town like Fayetteville.
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