Windermere flag flap echoes halfway 'round globe

Article Courtesy of St. Petersburg Times
Published April 12, 2004

Dustups over community deed restrictions typically are local affairs, but a whirlwind in Windermere has burst through Citrus County's borders and reached halfway around the globe. Who could have imagined that the actions of a few folks in a quiet Inverness community would have the good people of Australia spitting mad? 

But when the Windermere homeowners association last week told Louise Hogberg to take down the flag of her native Australia, which she proudly displayed next to the banner of her adopted homeland, the United States, the billy hit the barbie Down Under.

Through the miracle of modern communication technology, otherwise known as the Internet, Aussie media have picked up on the controversy. Hogberg said last week that she has been inundated with interview requests from Australian newspapers and radio and television stations. She has appeared on Perth morning radio shows and a television crew was diverted from the Masters golf tournament in Augusta, Ga., to travel to her home in Windermere.

Why all the fuss?

For one, it is an interesting story. People expect to be able to do as they please with their home adornments and they are surprised when people are told they can't do something as innocuous as flying a flag.

I mean, what's the harm? Hogberg is observing flag etiquette by displaying her Australian and American flags in their proper relationship to each other. She can hardly be accused of causing a disturbance in the quiet neighborhood or of creating a distasteful or outrageous display.

Besides, the homeowners association rules that she is said to be violating changed after she moved in and after she first set out the flags. Also, she is not alone in displaying flags other than Old Glory. One neighbor, in fact, set out a Marine Corps flag and the association praised him in its newsletter.

(Full disclosure time. I have known Louise Hogberg for a number of years and she happens to live next to an aunt-in-law. Even without those relationships, however, I would still think that she is being treated unfairly.)

The incident has gained traction in the Australian media for a different, more serious reason. This one has to do with the longstanding friendships and alliances between the two nations.

In Australia, the tempest is seen as an insult against them by some Americans and by an authority group. It echoes the freedom fries flap that bubbled up between the United States and France at the outset of the Iraq war. To some, it is yet another example of U.S. arrogance toward its traditional friends.

Is that taking this minor matter and blowing it all out of kilter? You bet. But it goes to show just how fragile America's standing is these days in the court of world opinion.

We are a nation conducting a war that is very unpopular around the globe, even among our closest allies. Our leaders proudly proclaim that a "coalition of the willing" exists, but any objective analysis shows that our historic allies are hardly clamoring to help out. It is within this context that such minor disputes take on disproportionate weight.

Obviously, the members of the Windermere Garden Villas Home Owners Association board had absolutely no intention of starting an international conflict when they cracked down on Hogberg and her flag, but perhaps they should have given some thought to how their actions might be interpreted.

Consider the board's unanimous decision last week to order the removal of not just Hogberg's flag but all others except for the Stars and Stripes. Their sweeping vote means that the Marine Corps standard must come down as well as another neighbor's flag that proclaims its owner as Proud To Be An American. Is that really the message that the association board wants to send to its members: that they alone will decide how patriotism can be exhibited?

Sure, homeowners groups have the authority to regulate certain elements of their community, and those who choose to live in such communities had better understand what those rules are before they move in. But there is growing concern around Florida about the powers these groups wield. Two bills now in play in the Legislature, initiated by residents' complaints, aim at changing the way that such associations operate.

Residents such as Hogberg who run afoul of their associations now have limited options, most of which require spending time and money in a court fight that no one wants. Faced with such a choice, Hogberg and the neighbors last week simply took down the offending flags.

The Windermere fracas is another of those instances in which the cure is worse than the disease. In an attempt to ensure neighborhood conformity, the association board has inflamed disharmony locally and angered total strangers half a world away.

Job well done, I'd say.

But instead of learning from these obvious mistakes, our legislators seem poised to add some more insult to injury. The homeowners' association bill SB 2984, again without any provisions to protect consumers, but heavily pushed by industry-friendly legislators, contains the following paragraph:
(2)  Any homeowner may display one portable, removable United States flag or official flag of the State of Florida in a respectful manner, and on Armed Forces Day, Memorial Day, Flag Day, Independence Day, and Veterans Day may display in a respectful manner portable, removable official flags, not larger than 4 1/2 feet by 6 feet, which represents the United States Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, or Coast Guard, regardless of any declaration rules or requirements dealing with flags or decorations. 
That means that a homeowner can fly 6 different flags on certain holidays, but without the use of a flag pole and/or a bracket!
Is the homeowner supposed to nail the flags to the garage door?
What happened to common sense?
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