Does the removal of the Confederate flag from government buildings constitute a violation of free speech, or a long-overdue and necessary measure?
Sean Stoker | Opinions Editor | @theroyalthey
After Dylann Roof’s racially-motivated massacre of nine African-American churchgoers in Charleston, public sentiment toward the Confederate flag has reached an all-time low. Walmart, eBay, Amazon, Utah’s own Colonial Flag Co., and countless other retailers all sprang into action, removing the Rebel flag from their inventory, while many concerned citizens have argued for its removal from government buildings.
To compound the impact of the flag’s controversy even further, the South Carolina state house has left the Confederate flag at full-staff, while the U.S. and South Carolina flags have been lowered to half-staff, even while memorials are held in front of the building. The excuse given for this by the South Carolina government is that any changes made to their Confederate flag, whether it be lowered or raised, must be approved by a supermajority of the General Assembly. So as government bureaucrats bicker about whether or not they’re allowed to move a piece of cloth, it stands above the state house as a giant slap in the face to the victims of this tragedy and their loved ones.
Amidst the hullaballoo, these swift reactions have given some pause, arguing that this tacit banishment of such a historic symbol is a violation of free speech. While those holding up the First Amendment in defense of the Confederate flag do have a point, they are missing the larger, more pressing matter in question. Though the removal of the flag from stores and many public buildings was indeed quick and dramatic, I do not believe these actions were an affront to anyone’s rights.
Starting first with the retailers. Corporations are tasked with difficult business decisions and PR nightmares all the time. In a capitalist society, these decisions can be make or break for the company’s longevity, so they have the right—and a responsibility to their stakeholders—to make wise decisions that keep them in business. In the current environment the removal of a Confederate symbol from stores can at the very least be considered a shrewd business move, and at the most a moral stand on the part of the company. These companies, being comprised of many different people with a similar goal, are essentially making use of the First Amendment on a much larger scale.
And as for the government being tasked with removing the flag from public buildings, the answer could not be clearer: just do it. A government’s primary responsibility is to its people. And how can a government – state or federal – hope to do that while hoisting the colors of a defunct regime that institutionally restricted the rights of a significant portion of the population?
Not only is the Confederate flag a symbol of hatred in many people’s eyes, it is a flag that has no official use in modern American government. It would be like the Louisiana State Capitol flying a French flag just because they were proud of the area’s French heritage: a pointless decoration on a public building referencing a nonoperational government for the sake of regional pride. You can be sure that if the Reichstag building in Berlin still flew a swastika for similar reasons, a worldwide fuss would be made.
This is not to say that a citizen, proud of the Confederate flag’s other connotations, couldn’t fly it on their own property. That certainly would be a free speech issue. Though this symbol holds no special place in my heart, far be it for me to tell a proud Southerner that they can’t unfurl their own Confederate flag to use their own free speech. As long as you are a private citizen, I subscribe to Evelyn Beatrice Hall’s philosophy: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”