Free speech … or intimidation?

STARS, BARS AND CONTROVERSY Bobby Tillett wants to remember the Confederacy. But his employer says, ‘not in our parking lot.’
By MATT COLEMAN, The Times-Union

The Confederate flag is a polarizing symbol to many.

For Bobby Tillett of Jacksonville, the flag is a reminder of his heritage. That’s why he has it flying from a pole attached to the bed of his truck.

For his employer, BJ’s Wholesale Club, the battle flag is potentially offensive to the workforce and doesn’t belong on company property. That’s why the store told him to take it down or move his truck from the employee parking lot.

Tillett chose the latter.

The 37-year-old forklift operator never expected the 32-inch flag he mounted to his truck would be met with resistance by BJ’s management. The opening salvo in this battle was launched two hours into his April 22 shift at the employee-only distribution center. He was greeted by a human resources representative who told him he needed to remove the flag immediately.

When Tillett refused, he said BJ’s home office told him he couldn’t park on the premises with the flag on his truck. Tillett kept the flag and now parks a half-mile from the employee lot, making the 10-minute walk every workday. The married father of two said if he let his employer encroach on his right to free speech, he’d be sending a negative message to his family.

"It’s a matter of principle," Tillett said. "I shouldn’t have to take it down."

The corporate branch of BJ’s issued a statement saying company policy "prohibits expression that is rude, abusive, hostile or intimidating." Spokeswoman Julie Somers said the company isn’t taking a stand against the Confederate battle flag, it’s simply assuring the company’s work environment is comfortable for all employees.

She said the flag became an issue when another employee complained. The corporate office was consulted, and the decision was made after "extensive deliberation." Somers said she couldn’t make a blanket statement about what other items could be deemed rude or abusive.

"All I can tell you is we feel we struck the right balance by asking Mr. Tillett to remove the flag," Somers said.

Tillett said he has received nothing but support from employees at the distribution center. He said he sometimes finds positive notes tucked beneath his truck’s windshield wipers and is often greeted by horn honks when he drives to and from work.

Of eight customers the Times-Union recently interviewed at the BJ’s retail store on Philips Highway, all backed his stance to keep the flag flying. While not every one said they supported the message behind the Confederate flag, all agreed individual liberties should not be dictated by employers.

"It can be a Confederate, Jamaican or Cuban flag," Charles Moore said. "When it comes down to it, it’s just a flag on a truck, and it’s his right to fly it."

The problem for Tillett is BJ’s isn’t technically violating his First Amendment rights, said Ken Hurley, interim director of the Northeast Florida office of the American Civil Liberties Union. The employee lot where Tillett is barred from parking is private property, and BJ’s stands on firm legal ground, Hurley said.

But it’s not all about the legality of the situation. Hurley said the Confederate flag crackdown opens the door for other bans on vehicle decoration.

"Suppose it was a bumper sticker for McCain or Obama," Hurley said. "What would stop them from saying these are offensive?"

Tillett has consulted law offices specializing in employee rights disputes. He said he’s not trying to stoke a decades-long discussion about the meaning of the Confederate flag or rile up his co-workers, he’s just seeking fair treatment.

"Why is it OK that people can wear Malcolm X shirts to work, and I can’t have a flag on my truck?" Tillett asked. "This selective process has got to go, but it’s far from being over."

© Copyright The Florida Times-Union

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