Flag-waving harder at Capitol

State bans brandishing of pole-mounted banners

Staff writerApril 14, 2010 

— Organizers of a tea party event planned for Thursday at the state Capitol are unhappy they can't carry flags on poles because of state officials' fears that they could be used as weapons.

The prohibition applies to the American flag, North Carolina's state flag or anything else carried on a pole more than a foot in length. Scott Hunter, chief of the State Capitol Police, said that the group will be allowed to carry tiny flags of the kind handed out at parades and Fourth of July events.

"It's sad our country has come to this," said Laura Long, the Apex woman who applied for the permit on behalf of Triangle Conservatives Unite.

The ban on flagpoles and signs with posts that could be turned into weapons was added in September to the permit from the N.C. Department of Administration that groups need to hold demonstrations or events on state-operated grounds.

The rule states that demonstration participants can't carry "signs, banners, posters and other similar displays" attached to metal, wood or plastic posts. That includes flagpoles more than a foot in length, according to Jill Lucas, a department spokeswoman.

Doing so would invalidate the permit and mean police could shut down an event, said Hunter, who drafted the restriction. Hunter said that the measure was adopted to protect people, not to infringe upon their rights.

"It had nothing at all to do with the American flag, the North Carolina flag or anything like that," Hunter said. "The regulation was put in place to prevent injuries."

Hunter said groups that have had signs in violation, with large posts, have just been asked not to bring them onto the demonstration site.

Heated protests

The ban comes as, elsewhere in the nation, demonstrations have become heated and raucous. Threats of violence were directed at several members of Congress following the recent, and controversial, overhaul of the national's health care law.

But Long said that there's never been any violence at North Carolina tea party events and that the restrictions go overboard. Local conservative leaders, including Claude Pope Jr., chairman of the Wake County Republican Party, were also critical of the restriction.

For a group that gets much of its support from people frustrated with the red tape of local and federal government, the realization that the restriction applies to flagpoles does prove a point, Long said.

"This is a very petty argument by the government," she said.

No rights violation

The rule does not appear to violate First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech, as long as it's applied consistently to groups of all political persuasions, said Michael Gerhardt, a law professor at UNC-Chapel Hill.

"There are other opportunities for people to express themselves," Gerhardt said. On Thursday, tea partyers' use of props to express themselves may just be limited to miniature flags or bigger flags and banners not strung up on poles.

Tea party groups, part of a grass-roots movement that's gained momentum over the last year with its fiscal conservatism and anti-tax stances, are staging events across the nation Thursday to coincide with deadlines for federal and state income tax returns. Thursday's public event at the state Capitol in downtown Raleigh is scheduled for 5 p.m.

sarah.ovaska@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4622

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