On Monday, a teacher in North Carolina stomped on the American flag to teach his students about the First Amendment. Lee Francis, who has been suspended pending an investigation, also asked his class for scissors or a lighter. (He says he was joking about burning or cutting the flag.)
Two students put a fast stop to Francis’ actions, including one student who grabbed the flag and took it down to the principal’s office. Francis told CNN that he has no regrets, but he also told Fox’s Todd Starnes that he has hired a lawyer to go after one of his students:
Francis admitted stomping on an American flag Monday during a lesson on the First Amendment. A photo of the incident, taken by a student, was posted on Facebook and went viral.
“Do I regret what I did? Absolutely not,” Mr. Francis told me in an exclusive telephone interview. “Would I do it again? All I can say is I did it and I stand by it.”
Mr. Francis said he has obtained legal counsel. “There were some laws broken as far as photos of me taken that violate the county’s policies — and issues that could be considered defamation of character,” he said.
He said the student who snapped the photo of the flag desecration “broke the law.” “I believe that child does need to be punished in some way — absolutely,” he said. “I can’t take a picture of them and in turn they cannot do the same of me.”
According to local news reports, there is a law that makes flag desecration a misdemeanor. I suspect the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in favor of the right to desecrate the flag will take precedence.
My take? Francis has the right to burn, stomp, cut, or do whatever he wants to the flag. This is America, and I will defend to the death his right to say and do things as a private citizen with which I disagree.
But the First Amendment does not provide a right to be unprofessional on the taxpayer’s dollar. Consider an analogy:
1. A U.S. citizen has the right to be racist, and use the “N-word.”
2. That same U.S. citizen ought to be fired for using said word if he or she uses it on the job. Francis’ income is paid for by local, state, and federal tax dollars.
3. Furthermore, a classroom setting sets up a power imbalance — the teacher has an automatic advantage over students. The students who walked out deserve great credit for their courage.
4. Part of professionalism is timing and sensitivity. Using the “N-word” would be a fireable offense in front of a class of white students; it would be doubly so if said in front of black students.
5. Likewise, given current racial tensions and the actions by Colin Kaepernick and other athletes as of late to protest police — and the historical use of flag desecration to attack the military — Francis was either grossly unaware or grossly insensitive to students who might have a personal attachment to the military, police, or patriotism. (CNN interviewed one highly emotional military mother who has a student at the school.)
Lee Francis has the right to stomp all over the flag until he’s blue in the face. He does not have the right to do so on the job, especially one paid for by taxpayers. Of course, whether his employment continues is up to local taxpayers and voters, not keyboard warriors like me.
I’ll take Francis at his word that he has family members in the military, and didn’t intend to disrespect the military. It’s also to his credit that he said he respects the decision of two students to walk out of his classroom, including one who grabbed the flag and walked it to the principal’s office.
But there is a line between “respect” and “safe spaces,” and between “decency” and “political correctness,” and stomping the flag probably crosses it.