Turley: The real meaning of the Gadsden Flag

by WorldTribune Staff, September 1, 2023

When a 12-year-old Colorado boy was reportedly kicked out of class for displaying the “Don’t Tread on Me” Gadsden Flag as a patch on his backpack, an administrator at the Vanguard School said the flag has ties to “racism” and “slavery and the slave trade.”

Jaiden Rodriguez was initially ordered to remove the flag patch. After his story went mega viral, he was allowed to display it in school again.

Eden Rodriguez, the boy’s mom, insisted its roots can be traced back to the Revolutionary War.

What is the true meaning of the Gadsden Flag?

“Not only is the flag a historical image originally unconnected to slavery,” but the action taken by the school “contravenes core free speech protections,” law professor Jonathan Turley wrote in an Aug. 30 analysis.

The flag was designed by Christopher Gadsden of South Carolina in 1775 as a symbol of the defiance of colonists to British rule. Featuring a timber snake, it affirmed the view of the colonists that they would not be stepped on by overbearing British officials and troops.

Some trace the origins of the flag to a design by Benjamin Franklin. The snake’s symbolism spread across the U.S. due to a biting satirical article penned in 1751 by Franklin in the Pennsylvania Gazette. In the piece, the Founding Father makes a barbed offer to repay Britain’s royal family for shipping convicts to America — by setting rattlesnakes loose around England.

While Gadsden would become a brigadier general in the Continental Army, he gave the flag to Commodore Esek Hopkins who later adopted it as his flag as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Navy.

“For the revolutionaries, it embodied the essence of the war: they were the victims of the British overstepping their authority and treading upon the rights of the colonies,” Turley wrote. “The historic image is still cherished by many, including those who see it as a symbol of defiance of individual citizens to overreaching government action.”

In the Colorado incident, a Vanguard School staff member explained that the image is now deemed “disruptive to the classroom environment” and that it has “origins with slavery.”

The staffer told Eden Rodriguez to speak with Jeff Yocum, the director of operations at the school.

Yocum reportedly cited research by a graphic design professor at Iowa State University, Paul Bruski, who declared the flag is now a symbol of hate: “Because of its creator’s history and because it is commonly flown alongside ‘Trump 2020’ flags, the Confederate battle flag and other white-supremacist flags, some may now see the Gadsden Flag as a symbol of intolerance and hate – or even racism.”

Yocum also reportedly cited a U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) ruling involving a U.S. Postal worker, which found that while the flag “originated in the Revolutionary War in a non-racial context,” despite its “historic origins and meaning of the symbol, it also has since been sometimes interpreted to convey racially-tinged messages.”

Turley noted: “Clearly, symbols can have different meanings for different people. I disagree with Professor Bruski, but respect his right to raise such objections. The question is whether others respect the right of those with opposing views, including viewing this flag as an important and inspiring symbol of the American Revolution.

“The censorship of the image strikes me as a clear denial of free speech rights for this student. … It is an ironic moment for a flag that symbolized the resistance to overbearing government actions and the denial of core rights in the American Revolution.”

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