05/10/2010 05:16 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Pinheads or Patriots?

"I think it's absolutely ridiculous," said Julie Fagerstrom, mother of one of the four boys sent home from Live Oak High School on May 5. "All they were doing was displaying their patriotic nature."

This telling, knee-jerk reaction, endorsing louder, like-minded Tea Party ignorance, is what should stand out most in light of the American flag/Cinco de Mayo-political firestorm out of Morgan Hill, California.

Because May 5 was the Cinco de Mayo holiday celebrating Mexican culture, four northern California teenagers decided to wear t-shirts prominently displaying the American flag. That strikes me as a classless move that's just plain rude, but it's a free country, and I suppose the boys figured nobody could find trouble for wearing anything red, white and blue in post-9/11 America, anyway.

But between classes that day, Live Oak Assistant Principal Miguel Rodriguez told the boys it was being disruptive and to either turn their t-shirts inside out or go home; they would be suspended from school if they returned to class as they were. Not surprisingly, the teens opted to take the rest of the day off. According to an article republished to the Tea Party website, local Tea Party organizer Kelly Stone defended the boys, saying, "We are not ashamed to wear this flag on any day. And people blessed to live in this country should not be ashamed to display the American flag or to see the American flag."

Nobody asked them to be ashamed for wearing the flag. But they should be ashamed after admitting they consciously wore American flag shirts because it was Cinco de Mayo. "We knew it was Cinco de Mayo," one of the boys said, "But we just came to show our flag." In hindsight, Live Oak should have made sure to allow those students' immature taunts.

The school's smart move would have been to call the boys into the principal's office, explain to them why they were being jackasses, maybe make a disingenuous detention threat should they refuse to show a little decency, and send them back to class. How could they not anticipate this was precisely the kind of all-American story that excites the Rush Limbaughs of the world? Surely school administrators could foresee how easy it has been to spin this as patriotic students punished for loving their country.

This is contemporary America. Wrapping yourself in an American flag gives you carte blanche to do just about anything, from waging trillion-dollar wars to casually disregarding other cultures. But there is nothing patriotic about wearing the American flag for the intentional purpose of disrespecting others. Unfortunately, by making a big deal out of little more than a lame high school taunt, Live Oak opened the door for the lame eruption of millions of people who, sadly, genuinely believe this a simple case of four all-American teens being punished for their patriotism.