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Threats no deterrent to teacher who stepped on flag while teaching First Amendment lesson

Posted September 22, 2016

— History teacher Lee Francis stands by his emphatic way of teaching his students about the First Amendment.

"I believe it was very productive," he said. "This was a teachable method that I utilized in my classroom."

Francis stepped on an American flag to demonstrate to his students that desecration of the flag, while an uncomfortable sight for many, is a form of speech protected by the First Amendment.

"What I was trying to convey to my students is (that) freedom of speech is more than something that's verbal, it's more than something that can be written down. Freedom of speech also includes the burning of the flag," Francis said.

"These are kinds of methods that the court has called symbolic speech – and I think that’s something they need to be aware of, and I think that’s exactly what the students understood in that lesson."

When a photo from the classroom went viral, parents pushed back.

In the days since the lesson, Francis says he's gotten threats in phone calls, emails and on social media. Francis says school district employees have also been the target of threats.

"I don't consider myself a martyr by any means, but innocent folks in this community, in this school system, should not have been receiving threats of violence and verbal abuse," he said.

Francis has reported the threats to police, but he stands by the lesson.

"I'm not afraid," he said. "I'm not going to run and hide. I'm going to stand firm in what I believe and what I think was a very appropriate lesson."

Francis was suspended from the classroom after school officials learned of the lesson. He met Thursday with Superintendent Dr. Frank Till Jr., who said in a statement, "Clearly there are other ways to teach First Amendment rights without desecrating a flag."

Till made no decision about Francis' status on Thursday. Francis, who grew up in Cumberland County, hopes to soon be back doing what he loves in his hometown: teaching.

The Cumberland County district attorney is not charging Francis with any crime. While flag desecration is a misdemeanor in North Carolina, the district attorney said a Supreme Court decision -- the very one Francis was teaching his class about -- overrides state law.


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  • Mike Rodgers Sep 23, 2016
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    I agree with your point about flag clothing. That seems just as disrespectful as any other "disrespectful" act on the flag. I've often yelled at videos where people, especially T-Baggers, yell and whine about the Constitution and "patriotism", yet they're wearing a flag that is clearly not approved of by the flag codes.

  • Aiden Audric Sep 23, 2016
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    It's more like taking a very big open-arms stance and thanking them for protecting all our freedoms.

    But if you'd like to imply that an armed town seems to have justification for taking him out, then you're barking up the wrong freedom tree. This isn't the Philippines.

  • Howard Roark Sep 23, 2016
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    But, none quite as powerful and controversial to demostrate free speech, right? Do you think any other example would have made headlines?

    I personally would never desecrate a flag. But that's me. However, I support everyone else's 1st ammendment, no matter whether I agree with the method or not. I think his lesson has clearly demonstrated that many people in this country aren't quite the patriots or constitutionalists they claim to be.

    There's a reason the 1st ammendment was the first, and is considered the most important. Without it, our entire constitutional republic falls apart.

  • Howard Roark Sep 23, 2016
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    And many members of the military will tell you that they fought not for the flag itself, but what it stands for. And, that includes the freedom to say what he wants, how he wants.

    Why do people forget that we're all protected equally? Why are we trying to punish someone for saying something someone else disagrees with, or is offended by?

  • Rod Runner Sep 23, 2016
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    How exactly would focusing on the flag help us solve any problems in this country? It's an empty gesture. "Honor the flag." What does it accomplish by itself?

    The flag he stepped on is a piece of fabric. You can stomp on all the flags you want and it wouldn't change the meaning of the flag. The meaning is the important part, not the piece of fabric that portrays it.

    And if you are so concerned about the piece of fabric, do you put up with the US flag outfits that people wear? To me, that's just as disgraceful to what the flag means as stepping or spitting on it. But again, it is just a piece of fabric worn on someone's body, it's not the spirit of the flag they're wearing.

    But empty platitudes like "we should focus on the flag then we wouldn't have these problems" mean nothing without action.

  • Mike Marshall Sep 23, 2016
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    So I was reading in the Fayetteville Observer this morning and this gentleman call the flag a piece of fabric and that we need to be focusing on the issues in Charlotte rather than this piece of fabric. Maybe if we focus more on this piece of fabric we wouldn't have some of the issues we have in this country.

  • Lance Boyle Sep 23, 2016
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    We really only support free speech when we agree with what is being said or done. We really only like the interpretations of the Constitution that benefit us. We really don't take time to think much other than 'drive through or walk in'. This is why we will live through the misery of a man-child president

  • Paul Stroud Sep 23, 2016
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    You know things are bad when The Clash called this in the mid 80's:

    > You have the right to free speech as long as you're not dumb enough to actually try it.

    So you people are all about free speech, as long as it doesn't make you uncomfortable, got it.

  • Linda Tally Sep 23, 2016
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    Would very much like this teacher to be in a classroom where my kids are students - the method is unforgetable and exactly what the students need to know. Bravo!

  • Russell Iglehart Sep 22, 2016
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    This was a Colin Kapernick type protest masked as a history lesson... Nothing more, Nothing less..... Expect others to follow suit now.... Watch