RICHMOND, Va. (CBSDC/AP) — The city of Lexington is defending its decision to keep the Confederate battle flag off of municipal light poles, arguing that allowing that banner to fly on city-owned property could open the door to all sorts of offensive messages.
A June 11 hearing is scheduled in U.S. District Court in Roanoke on the city’s bid to toss out a lawsuit filed by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which claims the ordinance violates its free speech.
Attorneys for the city of Lexington, which is home to the Virginia Military Institute, argue in their motion that the ordinance does not prevent the self-identified Southern heritage group or others from flying the flag within the city. The ordinance only limits what flags can fly on city-owned light poles.
If Lexington was compelled to let Confederate flags fly on the city poles, “an infinite number of interest groups would suddenly have standing to compel localities to fly nongovernmental flags from government-controlled flag standards,” attorneys wrote in a brief filed this month.
“Organizations dedicated to reviving fascism or white supremacy, for instance, could force the city to fly Nazi swastikas or the Ku Klux Klan emblems from city-owned flag standards,” attorneys argued. “Organizations dedicated to communism could force the city to fly the hammer and sickle.”
The Sons of Confederate Veterans filed suit in January claiming the city ordinance adopted in September violates its constitutional free speech and due process rights. It also claimed the city ordinance violated a 1993 consent decree that blocked Lexington’s attempt to ban the display of the Confederate flag during a parade honoring Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.
Jackson and another Confederate icon, Robert E. Lee, are buried in Lexington and both had strong ties to the city of approximately 7,000.
City officials said they adopted the ordinance after they received hundreds of complaints in January 2011 when Confederate flags were put in holders on light poles to mark Lee-Jackson Day, a state holiday in Virginia. Some callers complained that the flag is divisive and a symbol of the South’s defense of slavery, officials said.
The flags were provided by SCV, and the city authorized them to be flown on the city poles. The SCV also paid for city workers to install the flags on approximately 40 poles.
The new ordinance states that only the city, Virginia and U.S. flags can be flown on downtown light poles. The ordinance does not limit other public displays of the Confederate flag within the city.
“SCV is free to carry and display the Confederate flag prominently on these same sidewalks, as both the consent decree and the flag ordinance maker clear,” the city attorneys wrote.
The lawsuit names the city of Lexington, seven city council members and the city manager, T. Jon Ellestad.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans rallied supporters last September when the city conducted a hearing on the ordinance. Opponents said it was an affront to the men who fought in the Civil War in defense of the South.
The Confederate battle flag, with its diagonal cross and 13 stars, has been a lightning rod in the South, particularly among black Southerners. The NAACP launched an economic boycott of South Carolina in 1999 about the Confederate flag that flew atop the Statehouse dome and in the chambers of the House and Senate. A compromise in 2000 moved the flag to a monument outside the Statehouse.
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