Monday, June 13, 2005
Huntsville Times

I-65’s giant rebel flag is highly visible – and perfectly legal

If you travel south on Interstate 65 to the beach this summer, there’s a new roadside attraction of sorts in Autauga County north of Montgomery. There, on a bluff-top half-acre of privately owned land, the Sons of Confederate Veterans have put up a tall flag pole. At the top, they’ve unfurled a large Confederate Battle flag.

Why would the Sons do that? Easy. Because they want the flag to be seen. The group apparently has a similar flag on I-75 in Florida.

Although some motorists are startled by the giant flag and although some Alabamians don’t think it ought to be there, the display is beyond the ability of anyone to order it down, which is as it ought to be.

It’s not illegal because it’s on private property. It’s not illegal because no state agency participated in its placement. It’s not illegal because the state Department of Transportation says it does not violate any regulations or laws dealing with billboards along the interstates. Perhaps most important, it’s not illegal because it represents a constitutionally protected form of free speech. It’s somewhat political and, at least according to the Sons of Confederate Veterans, it’s historical, too.

On that latter point, one might quibble. The Confederate battle flag was never the flag of the Confederate States of America. It never flew above the Confederate capitol in Montgomery until it was placed there in the mid-20th century as a symbol of resistance to the civil rights movement.

One might wish that if the Sons wanted to educate the public about the Confederacy and the Civil War they might actually use the real flag of the Confederate States of America, not the modern spinoff. Of course, that flag, sometimes called the "stars and bars," being unfamiliar to most people, wouldn’t have the same emotional impact, now would it?

But the Sons don’t have to do that. They’re free to put up their flag, just as everyone else is free to do something comparable. If, say, the Democratic Party’s national chairman, Howard Dean, wants to, he can put up a flag complaining about there being too many whites and too many Christians in the Republican Party. If, say, U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay wants to, he can put up a flag calling for the congressional removal of any federal judge who issues a ruling DeLay disagrees with.

That’s free speech. If it’s permitted only for certain views, then it’s not free.

Even so, life is filled with natural consequences. Some visitors from out of state, for example, could conclude that the battle flag means that Alabama is still entangled in the social fabric of the past. That would be erroneous, but such things occur.

Someone could even decide that the Sons of Confederate Veterans are a white-separatist group or that they advocate the reinstitution of slavery. That would be inaccurate, too. The reality is that people can never be too clear in what they want to communicate, but that’s up to them.

So if you like the battle-flag display or utterly detest it, use it as a reminder of the First Amendment protections that are accorded to everyone – regardless of the intent. It’s the price we pay in a free society, and a small price it is.

© 2005 The Huntsville Times

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