Confederate flag controversy continues

By Caroline Klapper | Nov 20, 2012
Photo by: Caroline Klapper Thomas Willis holds up a Confederate battle flag in front of the Historic Courthouse in Waynesville. Willis is with the WNC Flaggers protesting the removal of Confederate flags from the Confederate Memorial in front of the courthouse, and the potential restrictions that could be placed on such displays in the future.

Controversy over Confederate flags displayed on the Historic Courthouse lawn continues as county commissioners reviewed a proposed policy on the flags and other displays on county property Monday evening.

Earlier in the day, protestors were present on the sidewalk in front of the courthouse showing their support for the display of the Confederate flag, and what they believe to be the larger issue at stake — freedom of speech.

“We feel this is a violation of the first Amendment, and that it’s just blatantly wrong,” said Thomas Willis, a spokesperson for the Western North Carolina Flaggers.

The group has objected to the removal of the small Confederate flags frequently placed in front of the Confederate memorial on the courthouse lawn since the debate began this summer.

“It sets a chilling precedent for the people of Haywood County,” Willis said. “If our rights to honor our ancestors are diminished, it also affects everybody else.”

Flag controversy history

The flags received some negative attention earlier this year when Waynesville attorney Bob Clark e-mailed county leaders to ask for their removal. In the absence of a policy prohibiting such displays on county property, commissioners passed a temporary policy in August barring all displays on county property with the exception of “official governmental flags,” which include the American flag and the North Carolina state flag.

The issue was tabled until county attorney Chip Killian had time to look into state procedures and develop a proposal for a permanent policy on the posting and placement of flags, monuments, memorials, signs, placards and other displays on county property.

Killian presented the proposed policy to the commissioners Monday, explaining that he had researched state law and talked with the Department of Cultural Resources about the issue as it relates to historic properties and sites.

“It’s my attempt to come up with something fair and workable and constitutional for all the citizens of the county,” he said, adding he used already existing state policies as a guide.

While the policy still allows for the display of flags, signs and other displays, permission must be requested from the county 30 days prior to the planned placement date. The county manager has the authority to grant or deny permission to post any displays, and if the policy does not specifically address the requested use, authority lies with the Haywood County Board of County Commissioners to grant or deny requests.

Vocal protestors

During the public comment session at Monday’s meeting, commissioners heard from several people who opposed the policy as it is currently written.

Kirk D. Lyons, chief trial counsel with the Southern Legal Resource Center, said he took issue with the wording in several sections of the proposed policy.

“There are several ways in which it doesn’t pass constitutional muster,” he said.

The 30-day notification period is unreasonable and excessive, Lyons said, stating he believes notifying the county of intentions to put up a display the day before it happens or three days before a planned event with 20 or more people is adequate time.

He also argued against a section of the policy limiting the display of Confederate flags in front of the Confederate Memorial to the First National Flag of the Confederacy, or the “Stars and Bars,” for one day out of the year, Confederate Memorial Day on May 11.

He explained that the Confederate Battle Flag was an officially recognized flag of the Confederacy and is an appropriate way to honor Confederate ancestors, adding the kind of Confederate flag used and how many days out of the year the flag can be displayed is “none of the business of Haywood County and is patently unconstitutional.”

As the policy stands now, Lyons said he and his group will oppose it with “every fiber of our beings,” and he added, “We’re not threatening. We’re promising we will be there with you … until this issue is resolved.”

Doug Knight said he will fight to keep Confederate flags in front of the memorial because it’s important to him as a way to honor his southern ancestry. He said he loves his country, but “we want to honor (the Confederate soldiers), too.”

He pointed out that Bob Clark, who requested the removal of the flags, has not come to the county commissioner meetings to debate the issue.

“He squeaks and everybody jumps, but we squeak and everybody says, 'Too bad,’” Knight said. “If he wants to talk about this, then come talk about it.”

Larry Bradley was upset over the banning of the Confederate Battle Flag from the memorial display, and he gave the commissioners a short history about the flag and why it is appropriate for display.

He said he understands many people see the Confederate flag, in any form, as a symbol of racism and hatred, but for most people who display it, he believes those ideas are not at all what the flag represents.

“It’s about honoring our ancestors. It’s not about race or anything like that,” he said.

No action was taken on the policy at Monday’s meeting, and the next opportunity to take the matter up again will not be until the second county commissioner’s meeting in December.

Vice chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick said he respects the passion so many people in the county have on this issue, but the goal is only to establish a policy that creates a regular procedure for displays that is fair to everyone.

“We’re not going to violate anyone’s First Amendment rights. That’s not what we’re here to do,” he said, adding he noticed the protestors on the sidewalk in front of the Historic Courthouse earlier in the day, and he supports their right to be there. “There’s nothing that we can do to prevent you standing on that corner. You can do that, and no one is stopping that. We’re not here to quash those rights.”

“Anybody can still go out there at any time,” Commissioner Kevin Ensley added.