MORGAN HILL, Calif. – The days leading up to Cinco de Mayo have put this bucolic burg on edge.
A “patriot” group, a mysterious band of bikers and a right-wing radio host from Los Angeles are urging Californians to protest outside a Morgan Hill high school where school officials four years ago told some students to turn their American flag T-shirts inside out – or go home.
Many Morgan Hill residents had hoped the nationwide controversy spurred by the order had died down. But a recent federal appeals court ruling in favor of the administration has resurrected the fiery issue, and opponents plan on picketing the high school on Monday’s Mexican holiday.
“This whole thing is ugly,” said Rey Morales, a parent whose sons, now 10 and 12, had rocks thrown at them after the contretemps erupted in 2010. “It’s not just affecting the school. It’s hurting this entire community.”
Morales is so worried about violence on Monday that he’s keeping his four children home from school. And concerned police are watching closely.
But those who plan to protest insist on their right to do so.
“What disruption are they concerned about?” asked William Becker Jr., an attorney who filed suit against the school district over the original incident. “They must be afraid of their own behaviors. They must be incapable of controlling their emotions when people they disagree with want to freely exercise their First Amendment right of free speech.”
The raw nerves in this town of 40,000 stretch back to May 5, 2010, when Live Oak High School was festooned in cultural colors and Mexican flags. But when four boys showed up with their American flag shirts – proclaiming that it was nothing more than a show of American pride – Latino students saw it as sign of disrespect.
When tempers flared, school officials interceded. But when word of the incident got out, a bitter brouhaha erupted across the nation. The left maintained that ethnic pride is not anti-American. The right said that Cinco de Mayo does not cancel the right to visibly express pride in being an American.
Becker’s firm, Freedom X, filed a federal lawsuit against the school district and Live Oak administrators. It alleged that the boys’ First Amendment right to freedom of expression and their 14th Amendment rights of due process and equal protection had been violated.
The case reached a three-judge panel at the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which in February said campus safety outweighed the students’ First Amendment claims. The court pointed to previous years of Cinco de Mayo trouble at Live Oak. So Freedom X filed another appeal, asking that the case be heard by 11 judges.
As Monday approaches, the fresh upsurge of anxiety has spurred numerous community meetings focused on making sure this year’s celebration does not morph into an out-of-control invasion of angry outsiders. And although a number of Live Oak students have asked all the adults to “let it go,” the Gilroy Morgan Hill Patriots plan to stand out in front of the school, beginning at 7:30 a.m., and hold American flags in silence.
“We will not carry signs,” said Georgine Scott-Codiga, the group’s president. “We will be very respectful of students, and we won’t disrupt school in any way, shape or form.”
She promises that no more than 50 protesters at a time will spend roughly an hour in front of the school. But with word of the event being fanned by social media and radio host Jimmy Z, there is fear that all the strangers won’t get the peaceful message.
After Scott-Codiga’s group announced its plan, a group that supported the court decision – We The People Morgan Hill – began contemplating what it might do on Monday. At first, the group planned to be outside the school – until students objected.
But the group will hold a Monday rally outside the Morgan Hill Community and Cultural Center, from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. “We want to show that just because you celebrate a cultural holiday does not make you anti-American,” said attorney Juan Lopez, an organizer with the group. “We will have a unity, respect and peace rally. We will not be coldhearted and full of hate like the Patriots.”