A Flag Too Far: Rainbeaux banner raises curious debate

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The flying of a rainbow flag during an event at a Lafayette park has placed the Cajun country community in the midst of a national discussion on freedom of expression, sparked by a councilman’s proposal that all flags, save a few, be banned from flying in public spaces.

The councilman, Andy Naquin, offered the proposal after complaints from some constituents of public space being used to display the rainbow flag, widely seen as a symbol of gay pride.

In the Tri-parish region, local lawmakers are generally cool to any suggestion of a similar ordinance.

But their own words on why a ban is a bad idea here evinced broad differences in their own tolerance thresholds when it comes to other banners.

“We are getting out of hand on this,” said Terrebonne council member Danny Babin. “I would think the city of Lafayette and that parish have a lot more drainage problems and that type of thing to concern themselves with.”

Too many laws

Like other local leaders, Babin said flag bans are an example of government enacting too many restrictions on peoples’ choices. “Everything we do in this country is going to offend somebody but are we doing more good than bad in terms of government. We ought to pass a law each year that says each year we are required to take 10 percent of the laws we have off the books.”

Terrebonne councilwoman Arlanda Williams said she has few if any concerns about what flags get flown where.

“Until we reach the point where we have solved the infrastructure problem and people have strong, solid communities and our educational system is not challenged, I don’t give a damn what kind of flag people fly,” Williams said.

At this point the Lafayette council has only asked its attorney to research the potential for a ban. No ordinance has been presented for discussion.

In Lafourche Parish, council members said they doubt such an ordinance, if proposed, would fly there. Limiting what flags can fly over public spaces, Councilman Lindel Toups said, could get confusing.

“There’s the American flag, the state flag, and we’ve got a Lafourche flag,” he said. “I can’t go with it. If you want to fly a flag, you fly it. I don’t have a problem with that.”

Bonnie Blue

The pole from which the rainbow flag flew in Lafayette’s Girard Park was otherwise unused. No other flag had to be taken down for the gay standard to be raised.

Flying a flag such as that during a Pride event, local lawmakers reasoned, would be similar to the United Houma Nation flying its flag at Grand Bois Park near the Bourg-Larose Highway during a tribal gathering.

Controversy over flags is nothing new in U.S. communities. On the Mississippi coast, officials in Biloxi and Gulfport were taken to task a decade ago over the flying of a Confederate battle flag in a beachfront display of flags that have dominated the region. The so-called “Rebel Flag” has drawn fire in many places, because of differences in perception over its meaning. Some say it represents southern heritage and is not, as its detractors insist, a symbol of hate.

A historian told officials in a hearing that the Rebel Flag did not belong in a collection that included the U.S., Mississippi, Spanish and French flags because it never actually flew over the region. The Bonnie Blue flag – the official flag of the Confederate States of America, is more generally recognized as the official banner of the failed southern nation.

Flag disputes are often wrought with deep emotion. Pennsylvania vexillologist Richard Gideon said flags are the shorthand of history.

“When you see a flag or design a flag you have a message you want to send,” he said. “Every flag is a signal flag, just as a lighthouse sends a beacon of light as a marker, information on the coastline. People have a background of information on a flag that they can pull out every time they see one, in terms of what that flag means to them.”

Vexing vexillology

A visceral reaction to the display of a rainbow flag by those who find what it represents as repugnant could be deemed as deeper than the reaction to the same symbol on a placard or a poster.

“Generations of people have had experience with these kinds of things,” Gideon said, explaining that the vision of the vexillum – the Roman military standard – would certainly cause a reaction among those who saw it heading toward their village in the midst of a gladiator horde. “It would likely raise the blood pressure. From a very visceral and basic level people probably take more umbrage at a flag’s significance as a symbol than a mere poster.”

The degree of tolerance for any given flag was evident during interviews with local leaders, who criticized the idea of flags being restricted by an ordinance, except for those they or others might find offensive.

“If it’s not something offensive to the point where people find it oppressive” was the line Terrebonne councilman John Navy said he would draw in the vexillological sand.

The Rebel Flag, Navy said when pressed, could be one of those. “Some people may think it represents oppression. I would not be in favor of something like that. Someone could say they would prohibit a Mardi Gras flag because it could be offensive to religious beliefs, although I wouldn’t have a problem with it.”

Terrebonne councilman Dirk Guidry agrees with his fellows that government should not get into the flag-regulating business.

“Whether it’s a flag for gay people or POWs, we’re are sticking our nose in too much stuff,” said Guidry, who also acknowledged that he has limits. “I might have a problem with a Russian flag.”

Lafourche councilman Phillip Gouaux said he also has his limits.

“I would not want to see anti-American flags,” he said. “It’s a free country, but anything that brings negative views of the United States should not be allowed to fly.”

Legal perspective

Precisely because flags can bring emotional reactions and that the interpretations can be so arbitrary, a long line of case law tends to protect their display and place a great burden on the potential for government restriction.

“Councilman Naquin’s proposal is problematic for several reasons,” states Marjorie Esman, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana, in an open letter to the city of Lafayette distributed last week. “If, on one hand, the ordinance is approved as described above – to allow only the flying of American, Louisiana and Acadian/LCG flags, and possibly Mardi Gras flags, on LCG property – it likely violates the First Amendment, as the exception for Mardi Gras flags adds an impermissible element of viewpoint-discrimination. If, on the other hand, the ordinance is passed to restrict all flags except government flags, it may pass constitutional scrutiny, but will produce the unfortunate result that Lafayette community members will no longer be allowed to use LCG-owned public flag standards to fly other popular flags, including POW-MIA flags, “Support Our Troops” flags, Ragin’ Cajun flags, Mardi Gras flags, Creole flags and others. For those reasons, the LCG should maintain the status quo and not pass Councilman Naquin’s proposed ordinance.”

Esman provided an analysis of the topic’s legal history in U.S. courts, noting that because the Lafayette park has traditionally been seen as a public forum, crafting an ordinance that would be constitutional could be difficult.

“Public forums have been defined by the Supreme Court as ‘places which by long tradition or by government fiat have been devoted to assembly and debate,’ and they are subject to stringent First Amendment protection,” Esman’s analysis states, noting that parks, streets and sidewalks are traditionally seen as the case law as “quintessential public forums.”

“A governmental restriction on speech in a public forum is subject to strict scrutiny, which requires the proponent of the restriction to ‘show that its regulation is necessary to serve a compelling state interest and that it is narrowly drawn to achieve that end,’” Esman wrote. “This is an almost insurmountable obstacle, as content-based restrictions on speech in public are presumptively invalid.”

Old Glory

Naquin did not return a call requesting comment on the matter. Three Lafayette councilmen were quoted in local media there as saying they would be opposed to an ordinance restricting flag display.

Locally, Terrebonne Councilman Greg Hood said he opposes flag restrictions as well, except those that would ensure the U.S. flag, when flown on public property, should be properly and respectfully displayed.

“People are going to fly different flags because they have different beliefs,” Hood said. “The only flag I would ever worry about and really am concerned with is the American flag, I could care less about others. And flying it disrespectfully is disrespectful to those who served this country and those who made the ultimate sacrifice.”

But handling of the American flag, or how it should be displayed, involves an entirely different set of cases that have marked the nation’s jurisprudence.