They wanted to show their support for U.S. troops in the Middle East, but some government workers and public school students in the Washington area have been stopped by policies that they say restrict their freedom of expression.

Disputes over displaying flags, buttons or yellow ribbons sparked an angry, partisan debate yesterday on the floor of the Virginia House of Delegates, grumbling in Baltimore County police precincts and a walkout of about 500 students at Mount Vernon High School in Fairfax County.

In Richmond, Republican legislators chided the administration of Democratic Gov. L. Douglas Wilder for uprooting small flags placed in flowerpots in the lobby of a suburban Department of Motor Vehicles office. In Baltimore, county police officers were told not to wear yellow ribbons on their badges. And in Mount Vernon, students marched out of school to protest a ban on a button supporting U.S. troops in the Middle East.

Virginia motor vehicles officials removed five to 10 small U.S. flags from the branch office in Chesterfield County as part of a "policy to minimize the potential for any conflict in our lobby areas and to respect the diversity of opinion of Virginia's citizens," said spokeswoman Edith G. White.

"If they had been placed on the employees' own desks, it would not have been a problem," she added.

Virginians flooded Wilder's phone lines in response, with most of the nearly 900 calls expressing outrage. The controversy spilled over into the legislature when House Minority Leader Raymond R. "Andy" Guest Jr. (R-Front Royal) introduced a resolution objecting to "the governor's policy."

A statement yesterday from Wilder's office said prohibiting such displays in public areas "is in accordance with long-established state policy."

"Governor Wilder shares the concerns of state employees for the well-being of our troops and wholeheartedly joins them in the individual expressions of support," the statement said.

The legislative resolution -- which under House rules had to be supported unanimously to pass because it was introduced after the deadline for new bills -- was defeated on a voice vote.

About 60 of the 100 delegates later signed a letter written by Del. George W. Grayson (D-Williamsburg) urging Motor Vehicles Commissioner Donald E. Williams to allow flags in agency lobbies.

Meanwhile, Washington area schools have struggled with how to allow students to show their concern about the war without inciting conflict.

The principal of Earle B. Wood Middle School in Montgomery County refused to allow youngsters to sing the national anthem in tribute to U.S. troops, but changed her mind after complaints. District and Prince George's County school officials have instructed students in Junior ROTC programs not to wear their uniforms. And administrators at Hayfield Secondary School in Fairfax County suspended a 17-year-old junior for insubordination when a demonstration in support of the troops was held without permission Tuesday.

Calanthia Tucker, principal of Mount Vernon High near Fort Belvoir, ordered the school's chapter of the Distributive Education Clubs of America not to distribute 1,400 buttons the group had printed.

"They sit there in government and teach us the Constitution, but they won't let us use it," said Tori Pezold, 17, a senior and vice president of the club.

The button, which reads, "Keeping America Free! Mount Vernon HS Supports Our Troops and Free Enterprise!" was initially approved by Tucker, who signed an order to purchase the buttons for $400 from club funds, students said. But students said she told them yesterday that the button is "too political" and would imply that the school as an institution took a position on the war.

Flying flags and chanting "U.S.A." and "Hell no, we won't go," the students marched out of school and onto the athletic field. The crowd then streamed out onto Mount Vernon Highway and briefly blocked traffic. "We're here to show that Mount Vernon does support the troops," said junior Tracie Morris, 16.

Tucker could not be reached for comment. Fairfax Superintendent Robert R. Spillane released a statement saying that demonstrations "can serve as valuable educational opportunities" but "must be planned and must occur in an orderly and safe manner."

Mark Goodman, director of the Student Press Law Center in Washington, said banning the buttons was a "clear example" of violating student First Amendment rights.

In its landmark Tinker vs. Des Moines ruling, the Supreme Court said that students have the right to free expression as long as it does not disrupt the operation of the school.

In Baltimore County, a prohibition on police officers' wearing yellow ribbons on their uniforms drew angry responses from beat officers and talk-show listeners.

Department spokesman E. Jay Miller said officers are allowed to have ribbons on cars, doors and antennae. But he said having the ribbons on their uniforms might pose a conflict if the officers were assigned to duty at anti-war demonstrations.

"If he wears a badge that's perceived to be pro-war, you put your officer in the position that he attacked someone on ideology," he said.

Spokesmen for many other local governments and for several large companies said yesterday that they have no restrictions on whether employees can display symbols supporting or opposing the war.

Staff writer Jane Seaberry contributed to this report.