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Flag-ripping scene too real for judges, who disqualify teen thespians

Students performing a play about the dangers of mindless political indoctrination were disqualified from a Broward County theater competition after cutting up a U.S. flag.

The troupe from Archbishop McCarthy High was performing a 1963 James Clavell play, The Children's Story. In it, a class of U.S. third-graders cuts up the flag after the country is defeated by a powerful enemy and their new teacher tells them that if the flag is so good, everyone should get a piece.

Judges at the Florida State Thespians District 13 one-act play competition said cutting up the flag broke Florida laws, and disqualified the group from the competition this week.

One judge, Melody Wicht, who teaches drama at Pembroke Pines Charter High, said a Florida statute says "whoever publicly mutilates, defaces or tramples with intent to insult" the flag has committed a first-degree misdemeanor.

"I tried to stay as objective as possible as they performed," she said. "My problem was that they took an American flag off the flagpole and cut it into pieces. They were disqualified based on Florida law."

But Bruce Rogow, a Nova Southeastern University law professor specializing in constitutional law and First Amendment rights, said Florida's law is outdated. He cited a 1990 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Texas vs. Johnson that struck down a similar state statute, ruling that flag desecration may be an expression of disagreement in a democracy.

"What's especially ironic is that this is a pro-democracy, antitotalitarianism play, and yet they're punished for using the flag as an example of what shouldn't be done in a totalitarian society," Rogow said.

Teens involved in the play said it presents a patriotic message.

"The play is actually pro-American," said Erin Fragetta, 15. "It was intended to be an anti-Communist message, and the judges just turned it around on us."

Ameli Fragetta, Erin's mother, said her daughter, who is a Girl Scout, saves fragments of the flag after performances for official flag destruction ceremonies.

"These kids had absolutely no intention of desecrating the flag," said Ameli Fragetta. "They're just performing a very serious play where the flag is destroyed. This is ridiculous."