County commissioners were forced to wade into the age-old Confederate flag fray — does it represent heritage or hate? — over tiny Confederate flags placed around the base of the Confederate memorial on the lawn of the historic courthouse. Placed there by Confederate veteran supporters, some community members found the flags offensive and asked that they be taken down.
The county lacked a policy on what can or cannot be displayed on its property and commissioners got caught in the middle of a struggle between Confederate flag supporters and opponents. County leaders temporarily banned the flags while giving County Attorney Chip Killian time to draft a formal policy.
The board of commissioners reviewed that policy for the first time this week, which addresses not only flags, but also monuments, memorials, signs, placards and any other sort of display on county property.
The policy would explicitly prohibit the display of the Confederate Battle Flag on county property at any time, under any circumstance. That particular Confederate flag is the one most closely associated with racial intimidation. However, most who display the battle flag don’t mean it in that context.
“It’s not about race or anything like that. It’s about freedom,” said Larry Bradley, who spoke against the proposed policy.
Under the policy, only the First National Flag of the Confederacy could be posted, and only from 7 p.m. May 9 to 7 a.m. May 11 to celebrate Confederate Memorial Day, unless permission is otherwise requested.
Confederate flags aside, any other displays would require a written request to the county manager at least 30 days in advance. The county manager would have the authority to approve or deny a request. And, only two small 12-inch-by-16-inch flags would be permitted.
All the commissioners support having written guidelines in place.
“I think we are all in agreement that we need something,” said Commissioner Mike Sorrells. “The policy seems to be fine.”
Sorrells hedged his support, saying that the board still needs time to digest all the information it received Monday night from Confederate flag supporters and from county attorney Chip Killian who drafted the policy.
At the earliest, the commissioners will vote on the policy at their Dec. 17 meeting. Chairman Mark Swanger encouraged people in the meantime to send their comments and thoughts on the matter to County Manager Marty Stamey.
Three Confederate flag supporters spoke out against the policy at the meeting.
“It has a chilling affect on the First Amendment for all Haywood, and I emphasize all, county residents,” said Kirk Lyons, chief trial counsel at the Southern Legal Resource Center. “We will oppose this policy as it is written today with every fiber of our being.”
Lyons also called the 30-day requirement “patently unreasonable.”
The Confederate flag supporters all spoke about how the matter was truly about protecting citizens’ right to free speech.
The policy does not prohibit people from protesting on the sidewalk in front of the courthouse, which Confederate flag supporters have taken to doing.
Killian said he consulted the state archives, comments and letters from county residents and other similar laws during the policy’s creation.
“It’s an attempt, my attempt, to come up with something workable,” Killian said.
The policy has been in the making since the summer, when the county instructed maintenance workers to start pulling up the flags around the Confederate memorial following complaints.
Confederate flag supporters, such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the Southern Legal Resource Center, began fighting back. After a commissioner meeting where about 20 Confederate flag supporters showed up to protest, county leaders decided in August to prohibit the display of any flags until a policy could be implemented.
One concern with a policy banning flags was an inadvertent side effect on the display of international flags during the Folkmoot USA international dance and music festival every summer in Waynesville, when the historic courthouse is adorned in flags from other countries.
The policy does not apply to governmental flags, however, whether state flags or flags of other countries.