FLAG IN DISTRESS
(MANITOWOC HERALD TIMES) — When Dale Decker, 31, began to fly his American flag upside down from the railing outside his apartment in mid-June, the Manitowoc Police Department and his landlord asked him to remove it.
Decker, who says he flew the flag upside down because the United States is in dire distress, complied, but not without objecting to the directives.
Late this week, Decker said he is in the process of finding a First Amendment lawyer to examine the legality of the landlord’s order, but he admits he “really can’t afford to do something that could possibly get us evicted.”
His apartment building is owned by Premier Real Estate Management based in Brookfield. Paul Lee, Premier Real Estate Management’s regional manager in Sturgeon Bay, said the apartment’s rules and regulations handbook states renters need written permission from the landlord in order to attach any flags or signs on the property.
“We certainly have no objections if it was done properly,” Lee said. “It is a sign of disrespect of the American flag, and we would have a problem with anyone showing disrespect.”
If there is no legal basis for the landlord’s order, Decker said, the flag would be displayed upside-down again. If the landlord legally can forbid him from flying his flag upside-down, Decker said Manitowoc residents might catch a glimpse of him walking throughout the city with the flag on a pole carried over his shoulder.
As for the police department’s involvement, officer Jason Delsman left a copy of the U.S. Flag Code and his business card at Decker’s apartment on June 18, Decker said. Delsman’s business card included a note to “call ASAP,” Decker said.
When he called Delsman, Decker was told to remove the flag.
“It wasn’t really a warning,” he said “It was a threat telling me if I didn’t take it down I was going to be arrested and criminally prosecuted.”
A Congressional Research Service American Law Division report to Congress in April described the U.S. Flag Code as “a codification of customs and rules established for the use of certain civilians and civilian groups. No penalty or punishment is specified … for display of the flag … in a manner other than as suggested. Cases … have concluded that the Flag Code … is merely declaratory and advisory.”
Deputy Chief Bridget Brennan said Delsman was responding to a complaint received from the public. She confirmed the request was made to remove the flag, but said Decker was not warned or threatened with a citation or criminal charges. No paperwork was filed on the incident, she said.
A brief account of Decker’s run-in with the law was circulated nationally by the Associated Press earlier this week. In response, Decker said he has received “millions” of messages on his MySpace page from people supporting his actions.
“The funny thing is, all the people I’ve talked to and all the things I’ve said, I’m the only person that these people have ever come across who has been attacked by a freaking law enforcement agency for doing it,” Decker said. “I know it is a conservative area … but that still doesn’t mean that anybody … has the right to infringe on my First Amendment right to free speech.”
Bob Dreps, a Madison attorney who works on First Amendment cases with the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, said the police legally could inform Decker about the complaints. Still, Dreps said there is a “very fine line” when a police officer responds to a complaint involving cases like Decker’s.
“To go and visit the person who is using the flag in dissent seems to be siding with the complainant,” Dreps said.
“You don’t go to jail for that (flying the flag upside down),” Jack Janik, president of the Flag Day Foundation in Waubeka, told the Herald Times Reporter. “You don’t get fined for that. Not in America, this is why this is such a great country.”
Janik said Decker is using the flag “in the wrong context” because neither he nor his property are in immediate distress or in a situation threatening life or property.
“I’m not, but my country is,” Decker said. “When I fly my flag upside down, it is not meant to show that a single person is in dire distress. It’s a symbol of your country being in dire distress.”
Wally Specht, a Korean War veteran and Manitowoc resident, also disagrees with Decker’s actions.
Specht said he heard about the upside-down flag from a Wal-Mart employee. In response, Specht went to Decker’s apartment to tell him to hang the flag upright, but Decker was not home.
“It is a disgrace to the flag flying it upside down,” Specht said. “He is not in distress and the country is not in distress. It is a disrespect not only to the flag, it is a disrespect to our veterans and our country.”
Decker has a nephew in the military overseas. He said he has two more nephews that will be leaving for Iraq and Afghanistan within six months. He said he doesn’t know how his nephews feel about his actions.