Bus driver files lawsuit over Confederate flag

Bus driver files lawsuit over Confederate flag
This Wednesday, March 2, 2011 picture shows former school bus driver Ken Webber, 28.(AP Photo/The Medford Mail Tribune, Bob Pennell)

GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP) - An Oregon school bus driver fired after he refused to remove a Confederate battle flag from his pickup truck filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday to get back his job.

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Medford against First Student Inc., the school bus contractor that fired Ken Webber earlier this month.

The lawsuit claims Webber's First Amendment right to free speech and 14th Amendment right to equal protection under the law were violated, and demands he be reinstated with back pay and attorney fees. It also claims Webber's Oregon constitutional rights to free speech and equal protection were violated.

"The U.S. Supreme Court has held that it is 'a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea offensive or disagreeable," John W. Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, the conservative civil liberties group representing Webber, said in a statement. "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 that the flag — emblazoned with the word "Redneck" — is an expression of his cultural identity, also reflected in a tattoo on his arm, and in no way a statement of racism or political beliefs.

He was fired earlier this month.

The superintendent of the Phoenix-Talent School District had demanded the flag be removed from the bus yard, which is on school property, because it violated a policy about displaying symbols that could be offensive to minorities.

First Student spokeswoman Bonnie Bastian said they had not received the lawsuit, so it would be premature to comment.

The lawsuit seeks a jury trial. No trial date has been set.

In a case last November, the Sixth 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 bearing the image of the Confederate battle flag.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.