What’s the proper balance between public decorum and personal free speech?
That’s just one of the questions people in Geraldine have been discussing since a resident started flying a flag containing a message many have found to be offensive.
Hanging from a tall radio antenna on private property bordering the Geraldine Town Park, a flag displaying an expletive laden message disparaging U.S. President Joe Biden has been on display for the last three weeks. Though the flag is on private property, its proximity to the public park makes it easy enough for community members — including children— to see the four-letter words whether they would like to or not.
On Monday evening, the Geraldine Town Council discussed the flag along with the many complaints they’ve received from members of the community. Town Attorney Nikki Scott said the town would need to do its due diligence before attempting to take any action towards having the flag removed, which it may or may not have the authority to do.
“What is it that we’re riding on that gives us the authority to go say take it town?” Scott asked. “Is it a violation of our zoning ordinance? Is somebody going to file a criminal complaint?”
Scott said the council should start with the assumption of free speech and work towards seeing if there is any way it violates other laws or regulations with being on full display for the public.
“There’s freedom of speech, obviously, but offensive language can be regulated,” she said. “The question is whether that’s offensive or not… Most of us like the American flag, but then do we like the other kinds of flags? It’s a slippery slope.”
Councilman Larry Lingerfelt added that it being a political message on top of being “obscene” complicated the issue.
“One of the problems we have is that it’s purely political speech,” Lingerfelt said. “It’s a step beyond normal speech as far as protection goes. So, it’s obscene on one level, but it’s also political on another.”
Scott said she’s been considering the difference between a flag and a sign. An ordinance regulating the size and location of a sign might be possible, but Scott said the town could not address the content of a sign, and the rules might not apply the same to a flag.
Councilman Scott Tarant said he believed it would take an ordinance from the council to have the flag removed, but it might not hold up if challenged in court.
“I think it’s a shame… you can terminate somebody for what they say on Facebook, but you can’t make somebody in town take a flag down that’s worse to me than that,” Councilman Stanley Rooks added.
Scott said again that there might be cause for the town to have the flag removed if it is deemed obscene, but she would need to do more research into applicable laws and regulations before making any recommendations.