North Carolina-Based Southern Legal Resource Center Has Dismal Legal Record
A North Carolina legal group calls itself the leading advocate for 'Confederate Americans.' Its dismal record suggests otherwise
By Heidi Beirich and Mark Potok
This January, the SLRC Web site detailed two disputes under a headline that read "Cases Pending," implying that the SLRC represented the parties involved. In both cases, the plaintiff's families say Lyons actually did very little for them.
In early 1997, Concord High School freshman Katie Knight came to school in Concord, N.C., with a patch on her book bag that depicted a checkered racing flag crossed with a Confederate battle flag. Officials asked Katie to remove the patch, arguing, as many schools have, that the flag could cause school disruptions.
The following fall, with Lyons and Payne at her side, Katie and her mother appealed the banning of the symbol to the school board. "Their appeals," the SLRC wrote, "compounded by Kirk Lyons' clear exposition of the law, were persuasive enough to induce paving stones to change their positions. Unfortunately, the solons of Cabarras County were unmoved." The press release that included this description also headlined a promise: "Katie Knight Appeal Denied; Lawsuit to Follow."
No lawsuit was ever filed. "We basically stuck to our guns," Cabarras County School Board Attorney Mark Enriques told the Intelligence Report. "He talked about filing a lawsuit, but nothing was ever filed. In the end, they basically went away."
In early 1998, after two hearings before the school board with Lyons at her side, Katie moved to Indiana to live with her father, John, and her stepmother, Martha Knight. The case ended there, but that didn't prevent the SLRC from listing it in its "Cases Pending" section for five more years. The SLRC's description of the case gave no hint that the SLRC was no longer representing Katie Knight.
The SLRC page described its second "pending" case as that of Michael Blackburn, then a first sergeant at the Special Forces Special Warfare School at Ft. Bragg, N.C. Blackburn, the description said, "alleges defamation" against a superior officer who is said to have launched a criminal investigation against Blackburn and two other officers because they had SCV materials and had accessed a League of the South Web site. It reports that Blackburn and the others were exonerated.
It is true that the three men were exonerated. But Connie Blackburn, Michael's wife, says that although her husband did seek help from the SLRC and a number of other law firms, none of the credit goes to SLRC. "These guys did all the work themselves," Connie Blackburn said of the three accused. "I don't recall Kirk doing anything." Michael Blackburn is now an ROTC instructor in Missouri.
Days after the Intelligence Report sent Lyons and the SLRC a list of questions about these cases and others, the entire "Cases Pending" section of the SLRC Web site was removed, and the contents of a "Current Cases" section were changed.
The Castorina Case
Amidst all its failures, the SLRC has one case to point to that could become a significant victory for backers of Confederate symbols in the schoolhouse. But even this case is not the total victory that the SLRC and Lyons have portrayed it as.
On Sept. 17, 1997, Timothy Castorina and Tiffany Dargavell arrived at Madison High School in Richmond, Ky., wearing matching T-shirts that depicted country music star Hank Williams Jr. on the front and two Confederate battle flags on the back. Citing a school policy against clothing with an "illegal, immoral or racist implication," the principal gave them a choice of going home to change or turning the shirts inside out for the rest of the day.
They refused and were suspended for three days. When they returned, they were again wearing the shirts and were again suspended. Ultimately, the pair withdrew and were home schooled by their parents, who supported their decision. The SLRC took the students' case.
A federal district court dismissed the case in 1998, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reinstated it in March 2001. Briefly, it found that the students were expressing beliefs that were protected by the First Amendment and sent the case back to the lower court to determine if the school policy could still be defended. It said a trial was needed to determine if the school had a history of racial conflict that justified the banning of racially divisive symbols and whether or not enforcement of the ban was "viewpoint-neutral," meaning it applied equally to other potentially divisive symbols (for a full legal analysis of the Castorina case, see Symbols in School).
The lower court ordered both sides into settlement negotiations and, last September, an agreement was reached. The school board agreed to amend its dress code so as to consider a "student's purpose" when deciding if clothing is allowed. It also banned "racially or sexually offensive" words and images. But the pact says nothing about the Confederate battle flag, and officials declined to elaborate.
Lyons declared himself thrilled. Earlier, he had written that any settlement "will enshrine the 6th Circuit ruling as law," which was true, but which neglected the fact that important issues remained to be litigated at trial. The appeals court ruling clearly did not overturn bans on the Confederate battle flag. Instead, it laid out the factors that must be taken into consideration before imposing such a ban.
But the SLRC and the SCV both are attempting to use the Castorina case as a cudgel to try to force other school districts to abandon attempts to ban Confederate symbols. Last December, the SLRC said that it was sending Castorina "packets" to school districts in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia. According to the SLRC, several districts have renegotiated their policies as a result.
Of Ostriches and Flags
The Lawrence County, Ala., schools are not among those that have voluntarily changed their policies. Lyons sued that district after officials suspended 16 students in October 2001 for defying a Confederate battle flag ban.
But this case has a twist: Lyons is representing seven Cherokee students, and he is arguing that the flag ban violates their rights as "Confederate Cherokees." Trial was set for this summer, but has been postponed because a school official was called up for active duty.
Board attorney Mark S. Boardman says he is unconcerned. He says he beat Lyons in a similar case when he was attorney for the school district in St. Clair County, which like the rest of Alabama is not governed by the 6th Circuit.
"I got a summary judgment," Boardman told the Intelligence Report. "The only new claim here is the Confederate flag is a symbol for Cherokee Indians. ... I don't anticipate it is going to hold any more water than the original claim."
Indeed, a year before the SLRC was incorporated, Lyons and the SLRC suffered quite a drubbing at the hands of Boardman and U.S. District Judge Robert Propst. Propst rejected Lyons' argument that the students' First Amendment rights had been violated, and dismissed the case. And the judge ruled that the Confederate flag can, in fact, cause school disruptions.
"Only an ostrich could conclude otherwise," Propst wrote. "The court concludes that school administrators do not have to wait for an outbreak of such disruptions to forbid such adornments" as the Confederate battle flag on a T-shirt.
Lyons vowed to appeal the 1995 decision. But he never did.
Their many defeats and disappointments notwithstanding, Lyons, Payne and the Southern Legal Resource Center seem determined to soldier on. "Victory in our National Origin claims is the surest path to winning full civil rights for Confederate Southern Americans," Payne wrote in one of SLRC's many appeals.
"All Americans who value their liberty in a free society have a stake in this fight. To obtain victory, however, we must be committed to the onerous expense of several lawsuits over a period of years. We cannot do it alone. Your pledge today to the work of the SLRC will help us continue this historic bid for our people's freedom."