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South Carolina's display of Confederate flag sparks debate over symbolism, speech

David Hudson
First Amendment Center


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Anthony Griffin...
Anthony Griffin

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The First Amendment protects the rights of individual citizens to display the Confederate flag, but the government of South Carolina should not endorse the banner by flying it over the statehouse, says constitutional-law attorney Anthony Griffin.

"We have to distinguish between those two issues," Griffin told an audience gathered this morning at the First Amendment Center for the program, "The Confederate Flag: Heritage or Hate Speech?" "The First Amendment protects individuals from government interference. We need to distinguish that from a policy decision by the government of South Carolina to hang the Confederate flag."

Cynthia Tucker...
Cynthia Tucker

Cynthia Tucker, editorial page editor of The Atlanta Constitution, also drew a distinction between individuals displaying symbols like the Confederate flag and symbols flown by the government over public buildings. "We at The Atlanta Constitution are staunch defenders of the First Amendment rights for individuals," she said.

First Amendment Center Executive Director Ken Paulson noted that the situation in South Carolina ran counter to the usual First Amendment controversy of government limiting speech. "Here, we have members of the public attempting to limit government speech," he said.

While not a classic First Amendment case, the issue involving the Confederate flag represents a "festival of the First Amendment," he said, adding that "the path to change stems from the free exercise of First Amendment rights."

Christopher Sul...
Christopher Sullivan

The panelists vigorously debated the meaning of the Confederate flag. Christopher Sullivan, executive director of the Southern Heritage Association, defended the flag and said calls for its removal "derived from a misunderstanding of the flag's history."

"Using an offensiveness test to determine whether the government can hang the Confederate flag in public settings is weak," Sullivan said.

The push to remove the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse could lead to the removal of all Confederate symbols from the South, he said.

"What are we going to do next: sanitize the whole state?" he said. "Next, we are going to not have any Robert E. Lee monuments, Robert E. Lee high schools or even George Washington high schools, because he was a slave owner."

Larry Griffin...
Larry Griffin

Panelist Larry Griffin, a historical sociologist at Vanderbilt University, countered that "the meaning of a symbol is not given by those who use it."

"The Confederate flag is associated with so much pain and has a meaning that outstrips the interests of its users," he said. "There is no symbol that so divides the South as the Confederate battle flag. It does not represent 'Southern heritage.' It may represent 'white Southern heritage' or 'Confederate heritage' but it does not represent 'Southern heritage.' "

Sullivan said his group was more concerned over the "flag's meaning than its location."

"We are concerned that people are going to sanitize the South of anything that existed prior to 1970," he said. "I mean, are we going to bulldoze every Confederate monument of Robert E. Lee?"

Attorney Griffin, an African-American who received widespread media attention for defending the First Amendment rights of the Ku Klux Klan in his home state of Texas, said that the flag can have multiple meanings for different people. However, he called for states and society to "diversify our symbolism."

First Amendment Center founder John Seigenthaler, who moderated the panel discussion, noted that the issue of the Confederate flag flying over the South Carolina statehouse represented just one of the many controversies involving the display of the rebel banner.

Seigenthaler pointed out controversies in Virginia, North Carolina and Maryland over whether the government should issue special license plates depicting the Confederate flag to the Sons of Confederate Veterans. He also mentioned some student free-speech cases, including a case in Derby, Kan., involving middle school student T.J. West. T.J. was suspended for drawing a picture of the Confederate flag in math class.

"The issue of the flag will continue to create controversy far beyond Columbia, South Carolina," Seigenthaler said. "The controversies raised with regard to the flag in South Carolina and the comments of a baseball player (John Rocker) are healthy in the sense that we do not allow certain feelings to fester and end in explosions of violence."

"Only through the First Amendment spirit of discussion, debate and dialogue, can we attempt to resolve our differences of opinion," he said.