Law Protects U.S. Flags, But Not Patriotic Signs


Article Courtesy of The Tampa Tribune

By Julie Pace
August 1, 2006 

TAMPA - Congress has created two classes of patriotic symbols: those protected by law and those that homeowner and condominium associations may prohibit.

No one will stop you from the flying the flag under legislation signed into law last week by President Bush, but patriotic signs such as the "Support Our Troops" message that has stirred debate in northwest Hillsborough County are left unprotected.

That has local free speech advocates questioning who benefits by controlling patriotism. "It's censorship under the guise of regulation," said Luke Lirot, a First Amendment lawyer from Tampa.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md., said freedom to fly the flag is crucial while the country is at war.

"The American flag is a symbol of support for those who are fighting under it right now," Bartlett's press secretary, Lisa Wright, said Monday.

Westchase resident Stacey Kelley has flown a flag outside her home for several years. When her husband was sent to Iraq in December, she also posted a 2-foot-tall "Support Our Troops" sign on her lawn.

"The flag can mean a whole bunch of things to people," Kelley said. "It doesn't have to mean you support our troops."

Kelley's homeowner association demanded her sign come down because it violated deed restrictions prohibiting signs. Even with its stars and stripes and red-white-and-blue colors, the sign isn't protected by the new law.

Most federal and state laws treat flags differently from signs, said Molly Foley-Healy, general counsel for the Community Association Institute, an Alexandria, Va.-based organization that advises associations.

One exception is California. Foley-Healy doesn't expect other states to follow its lead, though.

"We are always of the opinion that those are the types of issues that should be left to associations," Foley-Healy said.

The federal law won't affect flag flying in Florida. Gov. Jeb Bush signed a similar law in 2002 allowing people to fly one removable U.S. flag, regardless of association restrictions.

Lewis Laricchia, a homeowners advocate who lives in Valrico's Brentwood Hills subdivision, flies his flag atop a 25-foot retractable flagpole.

Laricchia said his neighbors never complained about his flag, even before the 2002 law passed. Other patriotic symbols such as signs probably wouldn't draw objections either, he said.

"You're making an issue when there really shouldn't be one," he said.