ACLU of Iowa Challenges State's Flag Desecration Law

Affiliate: ACLU of Iowa
December 2, 2002 12:00 am

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DES MOINES-The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa today filed a lawsuit on behalf of two college students here who were prohibited by city and county officials from displaying a United States flag upside down in protest of U.S. government policies.

Today’s lawsuit challenges Iowa’s “flag desecration” statute, a law that has already been ruled unenforceable by the state’s highest court.

“Bad laws like these should be stricken from the Iowa code,” said Ben Stone, Executive Director of the ACLU of Iowa. “Even though courts have consistently ruled that flags may be used in the course of war protests, police and prosecutors continue to use this law for no other purpose than to silence government critics.”

According to the lawsuit, two Grinnell College students — John Bohman and Juan Diaz — came under scrutiny for displaying an American flag outside their dorm window. The students hung the flag upside down, observing the official method of using the flag to indicate distress as a statement of their “displeasure with the policies of the United States Government.”

ACLU attorneys contend that two Grinnell City police officers, Theresa Petersen and David Klein, saw the flag last September and consulted with Poweshiek County Attorney Michael Mahaffey about the legality of the display.

After receiving assurances from Mahaffey that he was willing to prosecute the students under the state’s “flag desecration” statute, the officers went to the students’ dorm room and, according to the ACLU complaint, told the students that if the flag was not removed they would be prosecuted.

Thirty years ago, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled in State v. Kool that displaying an American flag upside down was protected speech and could not be prosecuted. Later, in 1989, in Texas v. Johnson, the United States Supreme Court reversed the conviction of a Texas protestor who was arrested for actually burning a flag in the course of a demonstration, declaring that the right of free speech protected symbolic use of the flag.

“The Iowa law is really more about harassment of protestors than protecting the flag from irreverent treatment,” said Randall Wilson, Legal Director of the ACLU of Iowa. “As a device for eliminating freedom of speech, this law runs contrary to everything our national emblem stands for.”

Today’s lawsuit seeks a court order that holds Iowa’s “flag desecration” statute unconstitutional and guarantees the right to display the U.S. flag upside down in the future. ACLU attorneys are also seeking nominal damages and a preliminary injunction against further enforcement of the law.

The students are being represented in the lawsuit by ACLU of Iowa cooperating attorney, Phillip B. Mears of Iowa City. The lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Iowa in Des Moines, Iowa.

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