An Oregon school bus driver who says his First Amendment rights were violated when he was fired for refusing to take down a Confederate battle flag emblazoned with the word "redneck" from his pickup truck has won his first round in court. A federal magistrate upheld on Thursday a lawsuit filed by Kenneth Webber against the school district.
Webber had driven K-12 students for six years as a bus driver for Oregon’s Jackson County School District 4 but he got in hot water early last year when he ignored a supervisor's repeated order to remove the controversial symbol of the Confederacy while his truck was parked on school property.
He was eventually suspended and fired for flying the birthday gift from his father. He later sued, arguing that the district was violating his right to express even an offensive idea without facing censorship or punishment from the government.
School Superintendent Ben Bergreen, who first noticed the flag in February, explained to the AP why he insisted the bus company force Webber to take down the flag.
"The fact is, our district is about 37 percent minority students," he told the AP last year. "It's fairly common knowledge that the Confederate battle flag is perceived by folks as a racist or negative symbol. The Southern Poverty Law Center said more than 500 extremist groups use it as one of their symbols."
Bergreen said Webber's flag violated the school district’s anti-harassment policy, which prohibits, as the Christian Science Monitor reported, "jokes, stories, pictures or objects that are offensive, tend to alarm, annoy, abuse or demean certain protected individuals and groups.”
Webber denied that he -- or the flag -- was racist. The married father of four said the flag had nothing to do with politics and everything to do with proclaiming his "redneck" lifestyle of hunting, fishing and family.
"I work for what I have. I support my family. It's just who I am. I'm a redneck," Webber told the AP. "It's a way of life."
Magistrate Judge Mark Clarke gave the first round in the dispute to Webber. He ruled that there was no evidence that the bus driver's display had disrupted school operations and concluded: “The law governing Webber's First Amendment rights is clearly established. The display of a flag is an act of symbolic expression protected under the First Amendment.”
The Rutherford Institute, a conservative legal advocacy group that is representing Webber, hailed the decision.
“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 President John Whitehead. "Ken Webber’s case is a clear example of what happens when free speech and political correctness collide."
The case now goes to a federal judge who will decide whether it will be scheduled for trial or dismissed.