TAVARES — A flag depicting an image of President Barack Obama was taken down from Lake County Democratic Party headquarters today after several veterans complained it was a “desecration.”
A short confrontation at the Democratic office ended when party chairwoman Nancy Hurlbert took down the controversial flag, which had been flying under an American flag on the same flagpole.
“It’s a cult of personality to show his face, like Stalin or Mao,” said John Masterjohn, a former Marine and retired schoolteacher from Leesburg. “It’s despicable. They don’t realize how sick they are.”
But Hurlbert said it was the first time that anyone had complained about the flag, which was given as a gift and had been flying for several months without any response from the public.
“I was surprised,” she said after taking down the flag. “No one had called us. We have a phone.”
The controversial flag has an image of Obama in the blue section where the stars are normally located. A similar flag was available for sale on eBay for $12.95.
Altering an American flag doesn’t constitute a crime, said Jim Lake, an adjunct professor at the Stetson University College of Law in Tampa.
“For good reason, these folks want to encourage respect for the flag, and while such an alteration may be considered disrespectful, the federal government doesn’t allow penalties against those who disrespect the flag,” Lake said.
The federal flag code carries no criminal penalties.
“It’s just standards on how civilians might use the flag,” he said.
Time and again, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that people who burn and intentionally desecrate the flag are protected under the First Amendment right of free speech, he said.
Local veterans organized the protest after Don Van Beck, executive director of the Veterans Memorial at Fountain Park in Leesburg shared photos of the flag with others.
By 4 p.m., about half a dozen veterans arrived at the party office, where Van Beck asked Hurlbert to remove the flag, telling her that it was in violation of federal flag code. He gave her a POW/MIA flag to fly in its place.
Hurlbert promised to research the issue but didn’t take the Obama flag down immediately, prompting Van Beck to declare that they would take the flag down for her.
“No, you will not. This is private property,” Hurlbert declared.
The veterans lingered on the property, discussing whether they would take it down or wait for a response. Masterjohn pointed out that they would be trespassing and risking arrest. Another person repeated the old adage, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”
The group had decided that they would take further action in a couple of days if nothing was done.
Then, Hurlbert came out and took down the flag, saying she had researched the matter. She didn’t take the POW flag offered as a replacement.
“We’re proud of our president and we didn’t realize it was in violation,” she said. “I am the chair and I take responsibility for this.”
That satisfied the veterans, including Van Beck, who believes the Obama flag wouldn’t fall under the First Amendment right of free speech.
“I’m sorry it had to come to this but you do not desecrate the American flag,” he said.