America loves its freedoms. Right near the top of those constitutionally protected freedoms is freedom of speech.
And, yes, that includes coarse, vulgar and offensive speech which can rile up a neighborhood or city – just as it has in Burlington in the past couple of months.
At issue is a brightly colored red, white and blue flag flying on a flagpole outside a rental home in a residential area on Schemmer Street, that is emblazoned with the message: “F—- Biden and F—- you for voting for him!”
Some neighbors are offended, others see it as a sad commentary on the state of the country and the virulent political divisiveness that has emboldened rude behavior. One neighbor last month asked the Burlington City Council whether the flag is prohibited under an ordinance that restricts public nuisances – actions of property use that continues to “substantially annoy” others or “greatly offend(s) the public morals or decency.”
The issue was put on the council’s agenda Sept. 7, but was pulled at the last minute and City Attorney John Bjelajac said enforcing the nuisance ordinance would run the risk of violating the flag owner’s First Amendment right to freedom of speech.
The flag owner has not been publicly identified, but the owner of the rental house said he has told the renter to take it down, saying, “We can’t have swearing on a flag in public.”
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Let’s be clear, this is not the only such flag around. We have heard of at least one other flying outside a residence on Racine’s North Side in a residential area near the zoo – which has also caused a kerfuffle among neighbors there.
And they’re easy to come by. For the low, low cost of $12.99 plus $6.99 shipping you can find the “F—- Biden” banner for sale online and post your own profane disagreement with the election of the president. If you swing to the other side of the political aisle, in a few keystrokes you can also find a 3-foot by 5-foot “Trump lost. F—- your feelings” banner for $16.98, plus free shipping with Amazon Prime.
Vulgarity is apparently one place where you can find bipartisan agreement, at least for some people.
Flags and banners have long been used to express thoughts, stir emotions and instill pride. The Star Spangled Banner, Old Glory – the symbol of our country – has often been the center of disputes over flag desecration laws passed by Congress and states.
In a narrow 5-4 decision that still riles up many Americans, the U.S. Supreme Court in 1989 ruled that burning the U.S. flag in protest was symbolic speech that was protected by the First Amendment. It underscored that ruling again in 1990 when it struck down Congress’ “Flag Protection Act” as unconstitutional.
“If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable,” Justice William Brennan wrote.
Remarkably, the late Justice Antonin Scalia, a conservative who cast the deciding vote in the 1989 case, said in one of his last public appearances, “If it were up to me, I would put in jail every sandal-wearing, scruffy-bearded weirdo who burns the American flag. But I am not king.”