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By Joe Rodriguez, San Jose Mercury News

MORGAN HILL, Calif. — Standing silently at attention Monday morning — Cinco de Mayo — almost 50 self-described “Patriots” held tall U.S flags in front of a high school still at the center of a public debate over free speech and cultural pride.

“We’re just here to support the First Amendment’s right to free speech,” said Georgine Scott-Codiga, president of the Gilroy Morgan Hill Patriots group. She spoke after the protest in front of Live Oak High School. “Cinco de Mayo is a circumstance of the issue. The issue is free speech.”

Feeling the opposite, a group of Latino school parents and community leaders planned their own gathering Monday night. Their argument has been that the show of U.S. flags implies Mexican-Americans and other
Latinos cannot be patriotic and proud of their heritage at the same time. In the emotional run-up to Monday, the Latino group decided against a counter demonstration in front of the school that might have led to trouble between the two groups.

Apparently not taking any chances, school officials put up a long tarped fence in front of the main entrance at Live Oak. Nearly all students arrived by car after passing checkpoints manned by school guards. Morgan Hill police officers were stationed outside and inside the school.

The demonstration stemmed from a 2010 Cinco de Mayo celebration on campus when four boys showed up wearing U.S. flag T-shirts, proclaiming it was a show of American pride. Some Latino students took it as a cultural slap and tempers flared. School officials ordered the boys to turn the shirts inside out or go home.

That order sparked a national debate over free speech and ethnic pride. A federal court ruled in February, almost four years later, that campus safety outweighed the student’s First Amendment’s claims.

Kendall and Joy Jones, the parents of one of the boys, have filed an appeal of the decision by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court. They argue that the school was wrong to read the flag T-shirts as an incitement to violence and that the wrong students were punished.

“You deal with the perpetrators of violence, not the objects of violence,” Kendall Jones said. “That’s why this is upside down” He and his wife held up a cross made of 4-by-4-inch construction lumber and attached U.S. and Mexico flags over it.

“We’re Christians. God loves all people,” Kendall Jones said. “We’re here today; we’re not against any race.”

Joy Jones said their son, Daniel Galli, is now 20 and enrolled at the University of Nevada at Reno, where he is studying for a career in military law.

Scott-Codiga and others in her group bristled at the question of race. She said she is half Mexican.

“What am I supposed to do, hate my own people?” She said. “I feel like we stood up for our rights. We did not allow the fear-mongers to dictate to us.”

Mihai Bulea, a Romanian immigrant and member of the group, said school officials and the 9th Circuit overreached in the flag T-shirt decision.

“That’s very different than yelling fire in a theater,” he said. “There should never be a day in America when a citizen is told he cannot wear a shirt with the American flag.”

Photo: Donkey Hotey via Flickr

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