As longtime freedom of expression advocates, there’s a degree, albeit very small, to which we sympathize with the Hartland, Minn., firefighter who displayed a large Confederate flag on a municipal fire truck during a southern Minnesota holiday parade.
Brian Nielsen, who drove the truck, has said he flew the flag to protest “political correctness.” Yes, those who wish to limit free speech and debate due to concerns about offensive terms can go too far. But the growing push to remove the Confederate flag from publicly owned buildings after the Charleston, S.C., church shootings is not one of those occasions.
Nor did Nielsen display good judgment in deciding when and where to lodge his one-man protest against “political correctness.”
Under the broad freedoms granted by the First Amendment, a flag that many find deeply offensive (count us among them) for its ties to slavery will no doubt continue to be flown on private property. The ability to do so is one of the cherished liberties that the nation celebrated this July 4th.
Nevertheless, these freedoms must be exercised responsibly. The time has long since passed when displaying the “Stars and Bars” in a place that implies government approval of it meets this threshold. That’s why South Carolina and other Southern states are considering removing the flag from their capitols or have already done so.
It’s also important to remember that constitutionally guaranteed freedoms do not give a pass for thoughtless manners.
July 4th is a holiday that not only notes this nation’s birthday but also celebrates this remarkably long-lasting union and the unprecedented prosperity and security it has yielded. To display a secessionists’ flag on this holiday, and to display it as an equal to the American flag as Nielsen did, was disrespectful to veterans and others marking this occasion.
Nielsen apparently took it upon himself to make a statement — one that looked like it was done on behalf of the city of Hartland — without clearing it through supervisors. Officials sensibly suspended him.
He shouldn’t lose his volunteer firefighting position over this incident. Rather, there’s a lesson to be learned here about appropriate times and places to exercise political beliefs. Nielsen and others remain free to display this flag privately. But a line is crossed when they want to display it a setting where it implies they speak for all.