Orange County residents have mobilized to oppose an Alamance County group’s plans to raise a large Confederate flag on private land off U.S. 70, west of Hillsborough. Bernard Thomas The Herald-Sun
Orange County residents have mobilized to oppose an Alamance County group’s plans to raise a large Confederate flag on private land off U.S. 70, west of Hillsborough. Bernard Thomas The Herald-Sun

Orange County

Confederate flag flap prompts 1st Amendment debate. Here are the arguments.

By Tammy Grubb

February 21, 2018 06:00 AM


The possibility of a big Confederate battle flag rising along U.S. 70 in Hillsborough has some Orange County residents asking for limits.

“Despite my personal feelings, I’m not here to contest the contents, imagery or related messaging of the anticipated flag; rather an issue involving code compliance and enforcement,” Hillsborough resident Heather Redding told the Orange County Board of Commissioners this week.

“For context, when an individual places a sign or a flag on private property, I appreciate that their First Amendment rights are generally protected,” she said. “However, these First Amendment rights are not absolute, and in fact, under the law, signs on private property can be regulated.”

Unlike for signs, the county’s land-use rules don’t limit the size or type of flag that can be flown. However, Redding pointed out the sign rules only exempt “flags, emblems or insignia of any national, state or political subdivision.”

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The Confederate flag is not technically a flag by that definition, she said, but it does fit the definition of a sign, “possessing letters, characters, illustrations or ornamentations applied to paper, plastic or fabric of any kind.”

The residents organized their petition in response to a landowner’s planned 60-foot flagpole on private land near the N.C. Highway Patrol station, west of Hillsborough. Robert Hall Jr. has offered use of the flagpole to the group Alamance County Taking Back Alamance County, which wants to raise large Confederate battle flags across the region.

A second group, the North Carolina Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, is behind another effort to raise Confederate flags in all 100 N.C. counties.

ACTBAC founder Gary Williamson said the group has at least four Confederate flag sites under consideration in Orange County.
Liz Condo File photo

Gary Williamson, the founder of the Alamance County-based Southern heritage group – also known as ACTBAC – said they’re considering four Orange County sites, including along N.C. 54 West and Interstates 40 and 85.

While the Southern Poverty Law Center in Durham identified ACTBAC as a neo-Confederate hate group in 2016, Williamson said the group honors and preserves Southern heritage and is not a white supremacy group.

Others spoke about a different kind of Southern heritage Tuesday.

Sarah Cross said the Confederate flag fills her with “dread and terror,” in part because she and other Jews are a target of hate groups, but also because, “in the last 150 years, the flag has been carried by people who have enslaved, lynched and murdered African Americans, believing only white peoples’ lives really mattered.”

Her Southern heritage includes one great-grandfather who fled religious persecution by coming to America, Cross said, and another who was just a child when his uncles joined the Confederate Army. They both wanted a good life for their families, she said.

“I want to say very clearly tonight that we can’t lose sight of the fact that what my ancestors and ours also shared, and what we in this room share, is that rich men instilled in them and us a fear of each other in order to prevent us from joining together to get the education and health care and peace that we need,” Cross said. “While we distrust each other and point fingers, rich men are benefiting and gathering more wealth.”

The commissioners rarely comment on new petitions before passing them to staff for consideration, but commissioners Chairman Mark Dorosin noted they already have asked County Attorney John Roberts to weigh in on the issue and will be asking about other possibilities.

“You all have laid out the issue very eloquently: the hate speech, as well as the issues of private property, First Amendment, the controls within the (land-use ordinance),” Dorosin said. “I want to assure you all that we are taking this matter very seriously, and we’re going to continue to explore all the options that we have going forward.”

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926, @TammyGrubb