On a quiet street in Fairview Heights, just a few blocks from Illinois Highway 159, where every fast-food franchise under the sun may be found, Jason Scott leans against his souped-up black '72 Monte Carlo and talks about his 15 minutes of fame. He's wearing a Stars and Bars pendant draped over a Dale Earnhardt NASCAR jersey. Beneath the bill of his baseball cap, he squints through wire-rim glasses, saying, "This is really gonna hurt my grades, because now I'm taking zeroes on things, and when you're suspended over five days you don't get makeup privileges."
No student wants to miss the first two weeks of high school, especially when staying home means, as Scott himself concedes, doing "a whole lot of nothing."
Scott, 17, a senior at Belleville Township High School East, points to the decorations that got him an eight-day suspension: three Confederate-flag symbols -- a 2-inch-square decal on the rear driver's-side window, a larger one on the back window and a metal plate just below the rear license plate, all of which he bought at the Flag Shop in St. Louis Union Station. Other adornments on the car include a rear bumper sticker showing membership in the North American Hunting Association and a decal of a bad boy pissing on a "Ford" logo. A peek inside reveals CDs on the front seat -- everything from Megadeth to Lynyrd Skynyrd to Rancid. Then there's the second decal on the rear window, which reads "Red Neck." "It's sort of a joke about the way I see myself," he says, "the long hair, the whole 'gearhead' thing, the fact that I like to hunt deer and fish."
The trouble began the day after Labor Day, when a couple of students complained to Assistant Principal Bruce Perkins about the Confederate flags, not just on Scott's car but on as many as 10 other student-driven cars. Turns out school policy bars any attire or display of symbols that others find offensive. Given that a quarter of the school's students are African-American, administrators figured it was a safe assumption the flags were a problem.
Says Scott, "After Perkins warned me, I started thinking, 'This isn't right. What can I do to prove my point to him?' That was my main goal, and it blew up from there."
It sure did. The next day, Scott returned with a 3-by-5-foot Confederate battle flag, bought during a trip to Branson, and he made his stand. In a courtyard at school, next to a flagpole bearing an American flag, Scott held the Confederate flag in one hand and a handmade sign in the other: On one side, it read, "Heritage, not hate"; on the other, "Mr. Perkins, you are not above the First Amendment." Scores of students gathered around him during a class break. Some jeered, but more applauded.
Within minutes, Perkins and other teachers showed up. Perkins grabbed the flag, tore up the sign and frog-marched Scott to his office. Once inside, says Scott, the assistant principal said, "If you want to be a racist redneck cracker, you can go down South and live."
"He wouldn't even try to listen to my point on this issue," says Scott. "He's, like, 'No, that symbol means slavery, and everybody feels this way.' That set me off. You see Malcolm X T-shirts in school, backpacks with 'Mexican Power,' Jesus fish symbols and various flags. Yet if someone wears a shirt with a Confederate flag on it, they're sent home to change. Why are some symbols tolerated and some not?"
He says he has no known ancestors who fought in the Civil War, no current relatives who live in the South. Scott, who lives in an integrated neighborhood and says he has black friends, roundly denies that he is a racist. "I just always liked the Confederate flag," he explains. "First time I saw them in a store, I thought, 'That's neat. I haven't seen that around.' Basically it's a collector's item."
But does he understand why some people find it offensive? "I can understand why they see it as that, but not why, because of that viewpoint, it should be banned," he responds. "I still think that flag is part of my heritage. It's everybody's heritage. It's a huge part of American history, and this symbol alone is held with more contempt than any other symbol related to our country. Is that the American way of spreading guilt, saying, 'We need to be ashamed that we once had slavery in our nation'? We had more slavery under the American flag than under the Confederate flag."
He's heard of the recent flag flaps -- South Carolina's removing its state flag incorporating the Confederate emblem from the Capitol, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay's removing the state flags of Mississippi and Georgia from the state-flag display at City Hall, Georgia's redesigning its state flag in January to exclude the symbol, Mississippi's voting to keep the emblem on its flag.
But the flag's connotations, he insists, are not as important as the broader right of free speech. "I've always been an advocate of personal rights," he says. "My last job at the furniture store, they cut us down to 20 minutes for lunch, and I thought, 'Wait, I know I've seen different.' So we went looking for it, and we found it: The OSHA regulations say you get 30 minutes lunch after the fifth consecutive hour [on the job]."
Far from making him bend to authority, the suspension, if anything, has taught him a different lesson -- maybe a civics lesson.
"It's really troubling that he was punished for protesting," says Denise Lieberman, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri. "It's a symptom of the problems we've been seeing in this post-Columbine era, this crackdown on student expression, especially of issues that may be considered dissident, alternative or offensive. What he did was engage in a pure form of political protest, and unless it caused a material and substantial disruption to school activities, that's protected by the First Amendment."
But all the First Amendment protections in the world won't let Scott cruise the backroads around Lebanon and Carlyle -- his favorite haunts -- if his car isn't in good running order. He loves to work on that car, and the auto shop at the high school is his place to do that. "It's never been in a commercial shop," he says proudly. After high school, if this suspension doesn't pull him down, he wants to go to Wyoming Technical Institute in Laramie and get a degree in auto mechanics. "They specialize in high-performance work, and that's where I want to be, maybe even open my own shop some day."
Last week, the school softened its position, allowing Scott to return after only six days' suspension. Did he back down on his stance, so hard-fought? "They told me that I can cover them up," says Scott, "so I'm going to cover them up with signs that say, 'Support the First Amendment.'"