Democratic Colorado Gov. Jared Polis is defending the “Don’t Tread On Me” flag in response to a now-viral video showing a 12-year-old student being told by school officials to remove a patch depicting it from his backpack.
Video of the incident sparked a social media uproar on Tuesday after it conservator author Connor Boyack posted it on X, formerly Twitter. The video, which appears to be filmed covertly by the boy’s mother, shows a school official explaining that the student was barred from displaying the flag, also known as the Gadsden flag, because school staff believed it to be associated with slavery and racism.
A ‘teaching moment’
Footage of the meeting at The Vanguard School in Colorado Springs went viral and eventually prompted Polis to step in to defend the flag as “a proud symbol of the American revolution.”
“(The flag is an) iconic warning to Britain or any government not to violate the liberties of Americans,” Polis, a Democrat, said in a response to another user on X. “It appears on popular American medallions and challenge coins through today and Ben Franklin also adopted it to symbolize the union of the 13 colonies. It’s a great teaching moment for a history lesson!”
In a statement sent to USA TODAY, Conor Cahill, the governor’s press secretary, said that Polis “is pro-freedom and supports freedom of expression.”
“Governor Polis wants Colorado kids to enjoy their free speech and learn from their peers when they interact in the classroom and beyond,” Cahill said in the statement.
What is the Gadsden Flag?
The coiled rattlesnake of the Gadsden flag with its “Don’t Tread On Me” warning against a yellow background has its origins in the American Revolutionary War as a symbol of unity against the British empire, according to Britannica. In recent years, the flag has become the symbol of the American Tea Party political movement and has also been adopted by far-right extremists.
In 2014, a Las Vegas couple who espoused anti-government, pro-gun beliefs killed two police officers at a pizza restaurant and draped over one of their bodies a swastika and a Gadsden flag.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona has previously defended the flag as a commonly symbol of the U.S. Marine Corps since 1775, saying it “has long symbolized the spirit of the American Revolution” and continues to be displayed at military bases.
An unseen woman in the video taken in Colorado Springs is heard invoking the flag’s longstanding association with individualism and liberty when defending the student’s decision to display it.
“The Founding Fathers stood up for what they believed in, against unjust laws,” the woman can be heard saying. “This is unjust.”
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District: Gadsden flag was among patches displaying guns
A school district official said in a statement to USA TODAY that the Gadsden flag patch was among a half dozen other patches on the student’s backpack, some depicting semi-automatic weapons.
The student had first come to Vanguard last week with the backpack displaying the patches, one of which also referenced alcohol, according to an email provided to USA TODAY that Vanguard’s board of directors sent to families on Tuesday.
Vanguard administrators consulted with Harrison School District 2 administrators, who directed the charter school to inform the student’s parents that the patches were not permitted under its policy, the email says. But on Monday, the student returned to the school with the patches still visible, which prompted administrators to pull him from class and have the meeting with his parents.
“The student has removed the semi-automatic patches and returned to class without incident,” Mike Claudio, assistant superintendent of student support for the district, said in the statement. “As a school district, we will continue to ensure all students and employees can learn and work in a safe and nurturing environment.”
Claudio did not specify whether the student also had to remove the Gadsden flag patch. But the email says that after the board of directors called an emergency meeting, it was decided that the student may display the patch after all.
“The Vanguard School recognizes the historical significance of the Gadsden flag and its place in history,” the board of directors wrote. “This incident is an occasion for us to reaffirm our deep commitment to a classical education in support of these American principles.”
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Eric Lagatta covers breaking and trending news for USA TODAY. Reach him at email@example.com.