Wisenbaker > Flag Fever on Campus

| April 23, 2015

Not Exactly a 1968 Deja Vu Moment

VSU Protest

Gary Wisenbaker, Valdosta Today Editorial Director

A funny thing happened after the flag trampling the other day.

Last week a former United States Air Force instructor and Playboy model recently put this South Georgia community and, more particularly, its over 100 year old institution of higher education, Valdosta State University (VSU), in the national spotlight over the issue of free speech.

Michelle Manhart, upon learning that the American flag was being used as a doormat in a demonstration on the VSU campus, approached the group and took the flag off the ground.

News reports are sketchy at best as to who the demonstrators were and what exactly they were protesting. Reports suggest that they were part of the Black Panther Party and were demonstrating against racism and “white privilege”, whatever that is. University police, who were alerted to the scene, were unable to obtain identification from the individuals, according to reports.

What the university police were able to do was wrestle Ms. Manhart to the ground (it took four of them) when she refused to release the flag. She was handcuffed and briefly detained.

The entire episode was recorded by a cell phone, hit the internet and went viral. National news media outlets picked it up and ran with it. The story dominated the local press as well.

What happened next is rather remarkable given that most college campuses, VSU included, are hardly bastions of patriotic fervor or other conservative values.

Three days after Ms. Manhart’s arrest, hundreds of students, black and white, male and female, peacefully counter-demonstrated (complete with “Don’t Tread on Me” flags) in support of the American flag and those in the armed services. In addition, while recognizing the earlier protestors’ rights, the Student Government Association passed two resolutions, one denouncing disrespect to the flag and the other supporting the military. The VSU administrative leadership joined in as well.

Good for you, VSU.

Imagine this happening in 1968. Astounding.

Texas v JohnsonThat a flag can be desecrated without punishment to the perpetrator was established by the United States Supreme Court in 1989. In Texas v. Johnson the Court held that the burning of the flag constituted “symbolic speech” and was therefore protected by the First Amendment. In a 5-4 ruling, five jurists overturned the laws passed by Texas and 47 other legislatures.

In 1990 the same majority ruled against a similar law passed by Congress (controlled by healthy Democrat majorities in both houses) and ensconced the status of flag desecration as “symbolic speech”.

Divining that the Founding Fathers had “symbolic speech” in mind 225 or so years ago is rather a stretch. The ever-broadening First Amendment view of modern courts creating “symbolic speech” may not be so clearly founded. For example, if the guarantee of freedom of speech was meant to cover anything other than just that, speech, then why segregate out a separate guarantee to protect the freedom of the press. Such would seem redundant.

And this was one of the questions tossed about the last time an amendment to the Constitution was considered. In 2006 the GOP controlled Congress approved an amendment that read “the Congress shall have the power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States.” It passed the House with the required two-thirds majority but failed in the Senate, 66-34, just one vote shy of that required to pass. Vast bipartisan majorities in both houses, then, voted to protect the flag.

Another question in that congressional debate concerned the uniqueness of the flag as a symbol of America and, therefore, deserving of special protections. Justice Stevens himself, in writing for the dissent in the Texas v. Johnson case 17 years earlier, argued the same point and would have allowed the anti-desecration law to stand since the flag’s meaning as a symbol of national unity outweighed any “symbolic speech” concerns.

In other words, “symbolic” or “expressive” speech has never enjoyed the same degree of First Amendment protection as “pure” speech, nor should it. And not all expressive conduct is treated as a form of speech. So, if one wants to exercise one’s right to symbolic speech by burning down a political adversary’s house using a flag as kindling, well, that’s not likely to be protected by the First Amendment.

JeffersonAs Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1819, “Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others.” Our rights, natural or as prescribed in the First Amendment, then, are not absolute.

Any limits or lines, Jefferson argued, ought to be drawn by the states since no power over these First Amendment rights was delegated to the federal government nor prohibited by the Constitution to the states. While these rights cannot be dismissed, Jefferson opined, they “may be abridged or regulated in their exercise by law.”

While the Supreme Court has ruled against flag anti-desecration laws, it has not always been right: SCOTUS has upheld slavery, Jim Crow laws, and reverse discrimination policies. And they may well be wrong here.

Given the national attention generated by VSU, a 12,000 student university, now may be an opportune time for the Congress to revisit the Flag Amendment. The votes are probably there: until 1989 forty-eight states had flag protection laws on the books, a number far in excess of that required to pass such an amendment.

Too many men and women have given too much for the country represented by this emblem over the past 240 years for it to be treated with less dignity than a placemat at a local diner. Proscribing the destruction of this powerful, unifying symbol for the sake of a political message may seem harsh, but that pales in comparison to the sacrifices that have been made in its name on the battlefields both here and abroad.

Protect it.

GARY WISENBAKERGary Wisenbaker, B.A., J.D. is a native of South Georgia where he practiced law in Valdosta and Savannah for 31 years. He has served as state chairman of the Georgia Young Republicans and Chairman of the Chatham County (Savannah) Republican Party. Gary is a past GOP nominee for State Senate, past delegate to the Republican National Convention and has consulted on numerous local Republican campaigns as well as chaired or co-chaired campaigns for President and US Senate on the county and district level. He is the principal and founder of Blackstone, LLC, a corporate communications and public relations concern as well as Wiregrass Mediation Services, LLC, a general civil litigation mediation firm.

Letters > Eric Sheppard
Rudnick > On Free Speech in a Democratic Society
Filed in: Editorials, Opinion

14 Comments on "Wisenbaker > Flag Fever on Campus"

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  1. Nate says:

    As an alum, I hope this makes the national news. Its time to heal this black eye we have.

  2. Tom Hochschild says:


    People who dismiss the concept of “white privilege,” as you have in this article, contribute to the anger felt by many non-whites across the United States. Members of the dominant group do not get to decide whether or not the experiences of other groups are valid.

    “White privilege” refers to the taken-for-granted advantages that white people enjoy that non-whites do not. Not being pulled over while driving because of the color of your skin, not being followed by security personnel in stores, not having your job application dismissed because of your name or zip code, having your ancestors discussed at length in school history books and art classes, being able to see people who look like you portrayed as “experts” in the media, are just several examples. “White privilege” does not imply that white people are guaranteed success in the United States; however, in the hundred yard dash of life, being white gives you a head start.

    For the sake of your readers and our community, I’ll ask the following:
    1) Please stop contributing to racial tensions by dismissing the attitudes, feelings and experiences of non-whites.
    2) Please familiarize yourself with racial data as it pertains to the criminal justice system, hiring practices, socio-economic status, health outcomes, political representation, educational outcomes, and media depictions.
    3) Actively work to change discriminatory social systems that harm non-whites.

    As good Americans and responsible citizens, it is our duty to be educated about these matters, and mature enough to address these disparities in a meaningful way so that we leave a stronger country for the next generation.

    Thank you.

    • Mass Media 2014 says:

      As a former student, I couldn’t help but to agree with you! What people fail to realize is that Racism in fact still exists as well as “White Privilage.”

      Thank you Dr. Hochschild! Excellent comment! Being one of your former students, I wouldn’t expect nothing less from you! You’re awesome!

    • VSU Alumna says:

      Black entitlement and racism and the invasion of illegals (all of these seem to get greater advantages and free housing, food, tuition, etc.)seem to be a bigger problem in the USA than White Privilege (which mostly consists of working hard, paying taxes and paying for our own children’s tuition).

      All that hatred and accusations against whites won’t fly in the face of the evidence.

      Most whites I know want blacks and reds and yellows and browns to succeed, but want the affirmative action to cease – equality is equality. Other races need to work hard, pay for their own housing, pay taxes and pay their own children’s tuition – and cease and desist from whining and bullying and threatening the rest of society.

      Get your kids off drugs and out of the gangsta culture, teach them to respect themselves and the opposite sex and stop having illegitimate children and expecting the rest of the world to pay for them. All races need to grow up, stand on your own two feet, practice charity and kindness and stop being haters/racists.

    • N M says:

      Excellent response. I came here to say basically the same thing.

    • Johnson Tayhlor says:

      I think you should move to another Country.

      Nigeria, Tanzania, Ivory Coast, Mogadishu are good candidates. They have extreme non white privilege.

      Good luck.

  3. Justice_099 says:



    • Karen Rose says:

      Sorry, I must agree with Tom. How else do you explain the statistic that Black Americans are 40% of the incarcerated population, yet make up only 13% of the general population?

  4. Sociology 101 says:

    It is 2015 and there are no privileged but the 1%. When society stops recognizing Race this entire world will be better. People need to educate others to understand we are Human and all bleed red blood! The pigment of my skin or anyone else’s does not determine who are what that individual is as a person. Thanks for your time. Have a wonderful day.

  5. John says:

    The Black Panthers ALSO tore pages of “The Holy Bible” out cussing and stomped on them.In my opinion this was a FAR GREATER assault. I hear that now the Black Panthers on their way here.Then I heard that the KKK is on their way….and the Koran will be Burned. Where does it stop.This could have been “Nipped in the bud ,before it ever started.TRUE we all have our rights to protest and free speech, however this goes beyond that.Do I have the freedom of speech to yell FIRE in a theatre, having people trampled to get out? NO!,because of the repercussions I know will occur.What happened with “Disturbing the peace”IF the Black Pussy cats hadn’t brought the problem, there would have been NO PROBLEM!

  6. John says:

    It makes me angry when I hear the concept”WHITE PRIVILEDGE” used.I started Valdosta State in 1969.At the time,it was common for as much as 1/2 of a class to fail….Higher for freshmen.I had several African American friends at college .One friend in particular let me in on a secret that only Black (as we called African Americans then)students and the professors knew.He told me they were given all tests for the class ahead of class to reassure them of not only passing but having high marks.I had to work nights to continue college,however my black friend was given a job ,by the gov. to sit at a closed school at night and study.I am 65 now.I’m retired from being laid off as a teacher and I look back on my life,of being turned down for jobs because I wasn’t black.Of being passed over for being white.I could write a book on “Black Priviledge”I have had to work and live in.

  7. LauraBL says:

    I just want to say, Old Glory deserves respect. http://starspangledflags.com

  8. billeeg says:

    It has been 40+ years of equal opp at education, It doesn’t matter how many years because it will never happen that blacks get educated at the same rate as whites.. No Law Will Ever Make Blacks & Whites Equal, ever…but anyone can earn equality.. When Blacks choose the necessities of life instead of “Tats , Bling, Wheels & Noise” we may see improvement. When the parents start telling their children that ,,” we are poor because I made BAD choices earlier in my life. It is my fault and No One Elses.” Any bizz that was handicapped by Affirmative Action hiring will find it difficult to compete. Unless you are a Government worker with no accountability, and unlimited funds to producing nothing. School segregation, affirmative action, adult ed paid for by Gov, ect… are all failed programs attempting to help WHO ???? hire the unqualified and hope,, it’s not my fault- give me more….ect… keep running from the Cops & hope for different results….i’m exhausted, i’m a priviledged white so bring me my lunch….. & shutup….. jus funnin U ….harhar