Click photo to enlarge
Pat Denney, 73, of Morgan Hill, walks past the Morgan Hill Patriots Group as they stage a silent vigil outside Live Oaks High School in Morgan Hill, Calif., on Cinco de Mayo, May 5, 2014. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled on behalf of Live Oak High School for forcing students in 2010 to either leave school or turn their American flag shirts inside out. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

MORGAN HILL -- After a week of tension about a potential disruption at a Morgan Hill high school on Cinco de Mayo, the separate political groups who converged outside the campus on Monday's Mexican holiday demonstrated peacefully yet passionately over their right to free speech.

The morning at Live Oak High School began with a silent, American flag-waving protest by a patriot group that later morphed into a gathering of motorcycle-riders who supported them. The day ended with an opposition Mexican-American rally in a city park where cultural colors and dancing gave way to speeches about pride -- both Mexican and American style.

"We met with all the groups and told them we didn't want any of it at our school," said Emily Conlon, 18, a senior at Live Oak. "We want this whole thing over with."

The "whole thing" stemmed from a 2010 Cinco de Mayo celebration on campus when four boys showed up wearing U.S. flag T shirts, proclaiming it 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 fiery national debate over free speech and ethnic pride. Parents of the boys were adamant that the school had no right to order the flag shirts to be covered. A federal suit was filed against the administrators and the school district, alleging that the boys' First Amendment right to freedom of expression and their 14th Amendment rights of due process and equal protection had been violated.


Advertisement

The issue stewed several years until February, when an appellate court ruled that campus safety outweighed the students' First Amendment claims. That finding led to another appeal, which is pending, and to plans for Monday's protests at Live Oak on Cinco de Mayo. Despite requests by students asking them to stay away, two groups opposing the court ruling insisted upon being outside the school.

School fear

As students arrived Monday morning, almost 50 members of a patriot group stood silently at attention with large, U.S. flags in front of the school. "We're just here to support the First Amendment's right to free speech," said Georgine Scott-Codiga, president of a group called The Gilroy Morgan Hill Patriots, speaking about the clash that has become a public debate over free speech vs. cultural pride.

The clash of opinions has already been considered by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and may ultimately rise to the U.S. Supreme Court.

At dismissal time, a group of motorcycle-riding protesters sang a very loud version of the National Anthem outside the school. And in early evening, a third group gathered near the Centennial Recreation Center.

All of that action happened on behalf of befuddled students at the school who put out a video on Sunday that paints their school as one fused by friendship, affection and respect.

Still, school and police authorities were so concerned about possible trouble, they ordered the construction of a tall fence that blocked off the entire front of the school. It was watched over by armed guards, and only parents and students were allowed behind the barrier. Some parents kept their children home.

"There is absolutely no racial tension at Live Oak High School," said Ethan Cox, 17, who described the Monday events inside the school as, "just like any other day."

Kendall and Joy Jones, the parents of one of the flag-wearing boys, said Monday 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," said Kendall Jones, whose son Daniel Galli, now 20, is enrolled at the University of Nevada Reno, studying for a career in military law.

Community pride

After school, about two-dozen motorcyclists showed up. Their leader, Bill Roller, said they were part of the "2 Million Bikers" that massively converged on Washington, D.C., last September 11, 2013. Riders from around the country rolled into D.C. as a counter protest to "The Million Muslim March, " which 9/11 event organizers later revised to "Million American March Against Fear." The gigantic biker attendance numbers snuffed out the Muslim event.

During the evening, a group called We The People Morgan Hill turned out at a city park to celebrate Cinco de Mayo instead of at the school as they had initially intended. At that event attended by about 100 people, there were speakers and Aztec dancers and lots of talk -- in English -- about love of America, cultural pride and the importance of Cinco de Mayo as also a vital chapter of "American history."

"Read your history books," intoned Noe Montoya, a Chicano activist who spoke to the gathering about the famed victory at the Battle of Puebla where a smaller Mexican force defeated a larger, professional French army. Montoya said that victory stalled plans by the latter to invade the U.S. on behalf of the southern confederacy.

"If is wasn't for Mexican resistance against the French, we might not be waving the red, white and blue today," Montoya said. "We might be raising the French flag."

Contact Joe Rodriguez at 408-920-5767 and follow him on Twitter.com/JoeRodMercury.