As self-described patriots lined up with American flags on Cinco de Mayo outside a school, students in Morgan Hill asked for calm and peace over a national controversy about T-shirts that they hoped would have subsided by now.
Dozens of protesters gathered outside the Live Oak High School on Monday, the first Cinco de Mayo since an appeals court ruled that administrators were within their rights to tell students they couldn’t wear American flag T-shirts on the U.S. holiday celebrating Mexican heritage. By early morning, 35 members of the “Gilroy-Morgan Hill Patriots” stood peacefully outside the Silicon Valley school, bearing American flags and wearing bright red shirts embellished with red-white-and-blue touches.
"We think that the American flag is a symbol of freedom and it should be displayed 365 days a year, and it shouldn't be banned," said Georgine Scott-Codiga, president of the local patriots group, whose mission to "promote an alliance of individuals who will engage in action items leading to the restoration of American values and ideals." "We don't want to chip away at our freedoms."
The school braced for what they hoped would not be a large protest Monday, organized by community leaders upset over the controversy over T-shirts that erupted four years ago. At the time, the administration felt the glaring red, white and blue symbols worn on a holiday celebrating Mexican heritage would incite violence on a campus comprised of 40 percent Latinos. In February, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco agreed with the school.
And, as a pre-emptive response, the school district released a three-minute video on YouTube this weekend where students asked others to be proud of their heritage without "beating on other people's opinions." One student says it's possible to be patriotic without disrespectful. Another student says "that incident happened in the past, we're beyond that.''
The video was made by Brian Garcia, a 2002 alum of the high school and a film teacher at San Francisco State University, who said students approached him about making the video to explain their response to the controversy.
"It was mostly about them saying, 'We've moved on, and we want to show everyone that we're a family now,'" said Garcia, who lives in San Jose. "I was so passionate about this."
As a safety precaution, school leaders also erected a temporary chain link fence, covered in mesh, so that no one can get in -- or see into -- on the school campus. Early Monday morning, school leaders hoisted up a giant green-and-gold poster that reads, "United at the Roots."
Scott-Codiga took aim at the fence.
"I see it as a barrier to keep out the First Amendment," she said. "Why don't they want students to be exposed to see democracy in action. Do we look like a scary group holding up our flags?"
Morgan Hill Unified High School's new superintendent Steve Betando told a bank of reporters on Monday morning that what the world has depicted as a divided school is not really that way.
He added that it is important to remember that all the students and administrators involved in the "past incident" no longer attend or employed by the school.
The "past incident" became a national controversy in 2010, when four students came to school on Cinco de Mayo wearing American flag T-shirts. At the time, the assistant principal called the shirts "incendiary."
Conservative talk shows went berserk, and many decried the fact that American students weren't allowed to wear American T-shirts to school, no matter what the holiday.
Morgan Hill parents sued over the "flag flap," claiming their First Amendment right to freedom of expression and their 14th Amendment right of due process had been unfairly silenced.
But in February, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the school, saying the Live Oak High administrators were within their rights to order the boys' to hide their logos, because of the school's history of racial problems on campus in the past.
"It was reasonable for school officials to proceeed as though the threat of potentially violent disturbance was real," wrote Judge Margaret McKeown. (PDF)
The parent group, known as Freedom X, filed another appeal, asking that the case be heard by 11 judges.
NBC Bay Area's Cheryl Hurd contributed to this report.