Black Mountain lawyer stirs Haywood flag controversy
A Black Mountain attorney who has become a flashpoint for the Confederate flag controversy in Haywood County has a long association with well-known hate groups.
Kirk Lyons, chief trial counsel for the Southern Legal Resource Center in Black Mountain, said the issue in Haywood County first came to his attention when a local member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans informed him about the removal flags placed at the Confederate monument on the courthouse lawn.
That issue has prompted a number of demonstrations at the courthouse since early August.
Most known for representing members of the Aryan Nations and Ku Klux Klan in cases in the 1980s, Lyons now focuses much of his attention on defending cases dealing with the Confederate flag. This is a group Lyons considers "the most persecuted minority in America."
While some have been critical of Lyons for carpetbagging, he believes the real issue at hand concerns First Amendment rights, which is important everywhere.
“I think it’s kind of funny that at Folkmoot you’ll have flags from every country in the world, even Communist China, but me being from Buncombe County, the commissioners think I’m an outsider…I have every right to come there and complain when they violate the rights of every citizen in Haywood County, not just the Confederates,” he said.
Lyons said he believes the county’s proposed policy infringes on free speech and creates a limited public forum.
“That’s the problem we have with their ban. It specifically bans the Confederate battle flag and governments should not be involved in that kind of decision. That’s not their place,” he said in a recent phone interview.
He further criticized a portion of the proposed policy that would require a person to receive permission to place a flag 30 days in advance, saying this also is an infringement of rights.
“That’s called a prior restraint on free speech. You can’t do that. That is unreasonable,” Lyons.
What would be reasonable, he says, is for the county to go back to its original policy, which did not involve any restrictions.
In a Nov. 19 letter to Haywood County Attorney Chip Killian, Lyons spelled out his objections to the proposed county policy and threatened legal action, something he said never happened in a later telephone interview.
“We have not threatened anybody with a lawsuit, at all. Not even in so many words. Filing a lawsuit is always, always a very last resort and we have made no commitment to anybody,” he said.
Lyons' letter, however, had this to say.
"The Southern Legal Resource Center, and, I am empowered to say, the 3500 member North Carolina Division Sons of Confederate Veterans will strenuously oppose the proposed “Display Policy” by all legal means necessary, if the wording we have brought to your attention remains in the final adopted policy."
For a lawsuit to commence, he said someone from the community would have to first seek his counsel, which has not happened.
However, he did say he will see this issue through until the end.
“We didn’t promise a lawsuit. We did promise that we would be there for them until the cows come home if they enact this flag ban. We will never go away, and I’m 56 years old. If I have to drag myself at the age of 90 to that corner to protest their illegal use of the Constitution by the flag ban, I will do it,” Lyons said.
That’s because he believes those even nationwide and in Haywood County who support the Confederate flag are sometimes criticized and misunderstood.
“The Confederate flag is being trashed nationwide. People of Confederate ancestry and the Confederate community are being treated like second-class citizens. We’re automatically assumed to be racist,” he said.
He cited several court cases that involved people fired from their jobs or kicked out of school for wearing the Confederate flag symbol.
“It’s like an ethnic cleansing and most people don’t notice that…I think that a whole generation of school kids have been taught that the Confederate flag is evil and racist and bad,” he said.
A history of unpopular causes
Lyons has experienced his share of criticism, mostly for his role in defending “right-wingers and Kluxers and people of Aryan Nations,” who he said had been demonized for their beliefs.
He said he did not represent any of those parties based on their beliefs, but because of their persecution for those beliefs.
But Mark Potok, Intelligence Report editor for the Southern Poverty Law Center said Lyons has played a role in those parties for years.
“The bottom line is, he claims he merely has represented white supremescists. That is a simple falsehood. He is a seasoned and longtime white supremacist,” Potok said.
A biography about Lyons on the SPLC website brands him a Neo-Confederate, but Lyons prickles at the suggestion.
“Neo-Confederate is a constructed word that the Southern Poverty Law Center has created, and I consider it an insulting term. When they call you a Neo-Confederate, they are really saying Neo-Nazi,” he said.
He said he is not a racist because one of his closest friends is African-American.
"I made a career choice to help the unpopular, the hated — the people I’m supposed to help as a lawyer. I have been crucified for it by people on the left side of the equation and they’ll never forgive me for that," he said.
While Lyons says he defends the Confederate flag on principle, Potok questions his motives.
“He is doing more than any other lawyer in the country to popularize and spread the Confederate flag,” Potok said.
But Lyons says he is simply standing up for the rights of those who are being marginalized.
“That’s what the First Amendment is all about. It’s being offensive and having your right to be offensive protected, because everything is offensive to somebody,” Lyons said.