As prom season is upon us, we share with you a case study of a high school senior who wanted to wear a gown patterned after the Confederate flag. See how First Amendments rights come into play.
Published April 21, 2015. Updated May 1, 2018.
As prom season is upon us, we share with you a case study that can be the foundation for a debate on the First Amendment in schools and potentially offensive images.
We use case studies in our Newseum classes to give students a deeper understanding of the five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment — and when those rights can be limited. This case is classroom-ready for you.
Jacqueline Duty worked years on designing her senior prom outfit – a sequined red dress patterned after the Confederate battle flag. The principal of Russell High School in Russell, Ky., deemed the dress “too controversial” and warned Jacqueline not to wear it to the prom, but she did so anyway. She said she had no other gown to wear and hoped administrators would change their minds. Instead, she was barred from the school event. Jacqueline sued the school district, claiming that her First Amendment rights had been violated. “I wanted to show part of my Southern heritage,” she said.
Think about this:
- What First Amendment right is at issue in this case?
- If you were Jacqueline, how would you defend your right to wear the prom dress?
- If you were a school administrator, how would you defend banning the prom dress?
- What do you think the outcome of this case should be? Why?
To guide the discussion:
- Why might the Confederate battle flag be considered offensive?
- Who might object to Jacqueline’s evening gown?
- Jacqueline attended a predominantly white school. Would it make a difference if the school were more diverse?
- If someone at your school wanted to wear a Confederate-themed dress to prom, what do you think would happen?
- What if the gown had foreign flags, political slogans, a gay pride rainbow, or a Nazi swastika on it? Would your answer change for any of these symbols? Why or why not?
- Should words or actions ever be banned? When/under what conditions?
Tips for student discussion: In small groups, students should talk through the questions and decide who they think should win the case and why. Challenge the students to consider both sides of the issue, and what factors – if changed – would alter their opinion.
What happened with the lawsuit? Jacqueline’s case never went to trial. The school board agreed to settle out of court in 2006. Both sides agreed not to disclose precise terms of the settlement, including the amount of damages awarded. Jacqueline’s case attracted national media attention and her lawyers said the school board’s withdrawal was a victory for Southern heritage.