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Fired bus driver files suit over right to free speech

A Phoenix-Talent school bus driver fired for flying a Confederate flag from his personal vehicle has filed a lawsuit to regain his job.

Bus driver Kenneth Webber of Medford claims the Phoenix-Talent School District and the district's school bus contractor, First Student Inc., violated his First Amendment right of free speech when he was fired March 8 for refusing to remove the flag from the CV antenna on his 1997 Dodge Dakota pickup. Webber has demanded to be reinstated to his job and to be compensated for back pay.

The suit was filed in federal district court and will be financed by Rutherford Institute of Charlottesville, Va., a nonprofit civil liberties organization.

"Ken Webber's case is a clear example of what happens when free speech and political correctness collide," said John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute. "Yet the question that needs to be asked is not whether the Confederate flag represents racism, but whether banning it leads to even greater problems, namely, the loss of freedom. The answer to that is a resounding yes."

Webber has said the 3-by-5-foot flag, emblazoned with the word "Redneck," is an expression of his cultural identity and is not a symbol of racism. The 28-year-old also has two large tattoos on his forearms: "Pure Redneck" on his left arm and "100 percent American" on his right arm. He did not return a phone call Wednesday seeking comment on the lawsuit.

Phoenix-Talent schools Superintendent Ben Bergreen had asked that the flag be removed from the bus yard, which the school district owns, because it violates a harassment policy against displays that could be offensive to minorities.

Bergreen on Wednesday declined to comment on the pending litigation. First Student didn't return a phone call seeking comment.

Webber, who drives a kindergarten bus at Talent Elementary School, has said he flew the flag on his pickup and parked the truck at the bus yard on Colver Road for nearly two years without incident. He was fired for gross insubordination after he refused to remove the flag.

He has worked for First Student for a total of four years. He also attends Rogue Community College and is married with four children.

Courts have upheld the right of schools to limit display of the Confederate flag when schools can show the symbol is disruptive to the learning environment. Last November, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the right of a Tennessee school district to suspend a student for wearing a T-shirt and belt buckle showing the image of the Confederate flag.

However, Whitehead said there is no evidence that Webber's flag caused a disruption at Talent Elementary School.

"You probably have a case if it causes substantial disruption or if you have racial violence on campus," he said. "In this case, it's a vehicle in a parking lot. People express all kinds of things on bumper stickers on their cars. His flag stood in the parking lot for two years. The kids don't care. You just have a politically correct superintendent who saw it."

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or e-mail pachen@mailtribune.com.