A New Kind Of Rebellion In The South: Free Speech In A Small Town Sparks National Debate

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Davin Eldridge – Staff Writer

A policy proposed last year by the official of one small mountain town could have big implications, whether it gets passed or not, as it threatens to ignite yet another national debate about free speech.

Following the deadly events of Charlottesville, Va., earlier this year in which white nationalists from across the United States gathered to protest the removal of a confederate monument, tensions ran high throughout the south. The state of North Carolina proved to be no exception, where just two days later, protesters illegally tore down the monument of a Confederate soldier standing before the old Durham County Courthouse.

But a few hundred miles away to the west, in the state’s sparsely-populated Blue Ridge Mountains, protests of another kind were held—protests which did not receive national attention, like those held in Durham, San Antonio or Dallas.

“Let it stand, let it fly!” screamed 30-year-old Macon County resident Christopher Hill. He was tall and lean, and wore a light blue mechanic’s shirt tucked into a pair of dark, tight fitting jeans. A red “Make America Great Again” cap was on his head. “Let us be!”

Hill stood with a small group of protestors in the center of downtown Franklin, waving the “good ol’ stars and bars”, as he called it—the Confederate flag—along with his cohorts. The day before, Gov. Roy Cooper called for the removal of the state’s 95 confederate monuments.

“Governor Cooper says these belong in the history books,” Hill said, pointing to the 25-foot-high monument standing behind the group, which has stood as the town’s centerpiece for the last 108 years. He pointed to the inscription at its base. “That there is an unnamed soldier. It’s supposed to represent all who fought for the south in the war. ‘The sons of Macon County who served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War.’”

The group, which fluctuated between five and 10 members, regularly received honks of support from traffic as it passed.

“A lot of people don’t know it, but not all the Confederates owned slaves,” said Hill. “All of us here—all our ancestors, they fought in the war. Most of them didn’t come back, and none of them owned slaves. Slavery wasn’t really around here, like it was in the rest of the south. You take this down, it’s just something else you’re taking away from us. Hell, we ain’t got much—never did—not around here. So, you’re gonna take away what little we got left? Something that’s part of who we are? That ain’t right. What’s next? You can’t take away our trust in God.”

Protests like these, although small, were common in Western North Carolina throughout late August. But by the time Labor Day came around in early September, those sentiments came to a head, 50 miles away in the town of Canton. Only this time, a small demonstration by locals would sow the seeds of another kind of rebellion—a kind that hasn’t been seen in the south for 50 years.

“It was just like any other Labor Day parade,” said Dr. Ralph Hamlett, a Canton native now serving a second term as one of its aldermen. “I was out and about in town, walking with the people, enjoying the parade like I always do. It’s one of the events the town does every year that I look forward to. Everything seemed fine at first, until I saw them.”

What Dr. Hamlett saw was yet another demonstration by locals—four pickup trucks which joined the parade, flying large Confederate flags from their tailgates. At first, it seemed to the soft spoken 67-year-old as just another show of defiance by a few of the town’s “good ol’ boys”. He was shocked by what he saw, and brought it up with town police during Canton’s 111th annual Labor Day parade—the longest running parade of its kind in the south. It wasn’t until an hour later, after Dr. Hamlett got home, that the event would forever change his view of the event.

“The emails started coming in, one after the other,” Dr. Hamlett said. “Many of them were from people of color. All of them were from people offended by the flags. They thought the town had sanctioned them. They were all hurt by the display. I was horrified.”

Dr. Hamlett, a tenured humanities professor at Brevard College, frantically responded to every email, assuring them the town did not sanction the flags. One such email, titled, “Why I won’t be doing business in Canton,” recounted the experience of an African-American who was supposed to march in the parade.

“When my friend arrived, there were a couple of pickup trucks lined up, and in their cargo beds were huge Confederate flags,” read the email. “Within a few minutes, another truck adorned with that hateful symbol had joined the lineup. My friend left, knowing that the town had chosen to allow that symbol of hate to ride proudly through its streets.”

It was on that night that Dr. Hamlett decided he would try to do something, and began drafting a policy which would ban the display of any kind of symbol or content deemed offensive from town-sponsored parades—including Confederate flags.

“This is an inclusive town,” Dr. Hamlett said. “We don’t want to hurt people. We don’t want to exclude people. We want to be accessible to all people. Charlottesville just happened, and people were still hurting from that—the nation was still hurting. So, I promised those people that night that I would do something, and I did something.”

By Canton’s October 26 town board meeting, Dr. Hamlett officially proposed the policy, titled “Canton Municipal Parade Rules and Regulations.” The document is remarkably thorough, addressing everything from entry deadlines and public safety, to animal waste procedures and the times and places floats can gather before entering parades.

The impetus for the policy is addressed at its heart, where it prohibits anything that could be deemed “vulgar, sexually explicit, insulting or offensive to any ethnic, religious, political or other identifiable group or individual, or that may incite violence.”

It prohibits “any image or content that includes nudity, profanity, lewdness, illegal drugs, violence, obscenity, hate, or racism.” The policy would essentially deputize numerous “parade officials” to enforce the policy, by them lining up along the parade route and monitoring it for any infractions.

While the policy does address the subjective nature of free speech, it does so in a very technical sort of way, by taking into account the context of the intended display by parade entrants during an application process. Dr. Hamlett said he scoured the country for similar policies, but could not find any that dealt with “potentially offensive displays.” One that came close, however, was a Chamber of Commerce-sponsored parade policy adopted by the town of Ashland, Ore.

“Instead of reinventing the wheel, I drew from an item in the rules, language addressing hate speech as well as other types of offensive speech,” said Dr. Hamlett, who is not an attorney, but has long studied constitutional law as a professor. “I also included a caveat for allowing ‘causes that fall outside the nature of celebratory events designed for diverse family audiences,’ which I hoped would potentially satisfy any constitutional challenges to the rules.”

“The criteria for determining what constitutes ‘hate speech’ displays, or displays that might offend individuals seemingly can be established using assessments made by recognized organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the Southern Poverty Law Center,” Dr. Hamlett said, adding that he consulted with both organizations before and after discovering the Ashland rules. “Since this is a draft document, the wording may change, but this is a beginning.”

Dr. Hamlett is confident the policy will pass constitutional muster. While only a few other towns throughout the U.S. have attempted such a policy, he said his is the only of its kind to address hate speech outright, while remaining constitutionally sound.

“What it does is it determines time, place and manner, as grounds for when, say, the flag can be part of town functions,” he said.

In a statement, the ADL called the Confederate flag a “potent symbol of slavery and white supremacy”—one that has been expropriated by some white supremacist groups as a popular calling card of hate. Nevertheless, Doron Ezickson, director of the ADL in Washington, D.C., said Dr. Hamlett’s proposed ordinance was not constitutionally sound.

“Apart from some limited exceptions like incitement to imminent violence, the First Amendment protects even hateful or offensive speech,” he said. “At ADL, we have found that the best way to fight speech is with good speech. Condemning hatred, bias, and white supremacy and vigorously protecting free speech are not mutually exclusive.”

On the other hand, the SPLC was able to confirm that they did speak with Dr. Hamlett, and that they advised him to seek community support in making the flag’s display unpopular.

“We are not familiar enough with the proposal to say whether it would hold up in court,” said SPLC Communications Assistant Lane Pickett in an email. Lecia Brooks, SPLC Director of Outreach, echoed Pickett. “It depends on how [Dr. Hamlett] plans to disallow others to enter the parades,” she said. “It’s one thing to require someone to apply for a permit, but how will you determine who can or cannot be accepted?”

At Canton’s Christmas Parade, a float sponsored by the Haywood County Republican Alliance displayed numerous flags, including the Confederate battle flag, the Christian flag, a Congressman Mark Meadows campaign banner, a Betsy Ross flag, a Gadsden flag and the current American flag, all ostensibly to challenge Dr. Hamlett’s draft policy.

With his proposal still being considered by the town attorney, and at least a month away from a vote, The Atlantic recently asked the alderman whether that float would end up in a town parade under the policy.

“In that context, it would be more permissible, because it’s not about one specific flag,” he said. “You look at it in the context of the flag’s display in accordance with time, manner and place.”  Dr. Hamlett also stresses that the policy has yet to be discussed by the town, nor finalized, so the matter of how it addresses free speech has yet to be “ironed all the way out.”

Some ‘yeas’, but mostly ‘nays’

 Since news of Dr. Hamlett’s proposal spread in late October, the response from the community has been somewhat mixed. The proposal strikes many who read it as some sort of small town totalitarianism, or an exercise in enforcing morality by the town killjoy. By many mountain residents, it’s seen as just another attack on free speech, which has earned Dr. Hamlett the scorn of many an angry local during public comment, not to mention the ire of some of his fellow board members.

“First of all, who’s going to enforce these rules?” asked 28-year-old Justin Skruggs, a local who is against the policy. “Who are these ‘parade officials’? How will they be picked? What’s the protocol for them to follow? Seems like a lot of unanswered questions to me.”

Dr. Hamlett admits the proposal is far from perfect, and invites fellow board members to collaborate with him and community on the policy, in the event it receives support. Much to his dismay, however, he has received very little of that so far from the region’s progressive community.

“It’s easier to get behind something when you’re angry,” Dr. Hamlett said. “When you’re not being affected in some way, you don’t feel you need to mobilize and take action.”

One welcome exception has come in the form of gratitude from Carmen Ramos-Kennedy, of the Jackson County chapter of the NAACP.

“I appreciate his leadership, honesty and statesman-like act,” she said of his efforts in an email. “Thank you again, Dr. Hamlett.”

Most businesses downtown won’t publicly take a position on the matter, for fear of losing business—or for fear of downright reprisal by vengeful locals. Dr. Hamlett’s proposal has come at a time when most communities throughout the mountains have set out to revitalize their downtowns, after the region was hit particularly hard during the recession and lost most of its manufacturing base.

The only business owner to go on record about the proposal was Wayne Moore, owner of Verbena Soap Company. Moore said businesses like his can’t afford to take sides on such issues, as the region depends heavily on its tourism industry more than ever before.

“It’s not surprising at all that some of us won’t say whether or not the flag should be in a parade,” he said. “I, for one, think there should be some kind of policy in place. The people organizing the parade need to know who’s going to be in it, in case something comes up and people get offended. These days, people are offended by lots of things. It doesn’t take much to get people riled up.”

Popular opposition to Dr. Hamlett’s proposal has already begun to stir. Shortly after its introduction, an impromptu “heritage ride” was orchestrated by several hundred “good ol’ boys” from every corner of the mountains. It was a loud and thunderous ‘parade of their own’, made up of mostly jacked-up pickups flying rebel flags from  tailgates. They snaked their way throughout the county, avoiding downtown Canton, before dispersing as swiftly as they came. The message was clear—their flags weren’t going anywhere.

While not involved with this year’s parade in Canton, or the Heritage Ride, North Carolina’s Sons of Confederate Veterans disagree with the proposal, and deem it unnecessary.

“At least in spirit, the proposal is unconstitutional because it inhibits a form of speech taking place in a public forum,” said NCSCV Heritage Officer Jake Sullivan, from Durham. He does admit the time, manner and place restrictions of the policy are important for analyzing the validity of first amendment regulation. “Our concern is that we seriously doubt that the town is applying, or would apply these limitations on speech evenly. The alderman who made the proposal has already shown his extreme bias in the comments he made to the press immediately following the parade.”

The well-intentioned alderman— a scholar who’s written extensively on free speech and racism — has come under great scrutiny—receiving hundreds of pieces of hate mail, numerous veiled threats, countless dirty looks and snide comments from the community. Where he was once emboldened by his efforts, he’s now struggling to maintain his courage.

“It’s become so sad, and so, so hard,” Dr. Hamlett said, choking back tears. “To think that something like this could upset these people this damned much. They expect me to back down. They expect me to go away. Some of the things they’ve said to me have been so hurtful. I think the nicest thing I read on Facebook was ‘someone tell the Good Doctor it’s time to go home.’ Well this is my home, and I’m not going anywhere.”

What horrifies Dr. Hamlett the most is something he didn’t consider from the start while drafting his policy—the very kinds of people responsible for the events in Charlottesville, the people who started all of this, may be on the way.

Some members from the “Alt-Lite”and “Alt-Right” community have already expressed their concerns about the policy. Recently a handful of flyers posted by the group Identity Evropa were circulated throughout Canton in early December.

“This is an attack on the first amendment,” said fellow “Alt-Lite” conservative Corey Stewart, a failed gubernatorial candidate from Virginia, in a statement. Stewart has frequently made political hay as of late by protesting the removal of Confederate monuments. He was an instrumental figure of this summer’s Rally Against Political Violence in Washington D.C. “No matter how you cut it, that town would limit someone’s right to express themselves.”

Canton’s town board has yet to even discuss the policy. Mayor Zeb Smathers has yet to publicly state his position on the matter, however he remains hopeful the town will resolve the issue.

“We’ll figure this out,” he said. “Canton’s a strong, vibrant community. It always has been. We’ll pull together. We always do.”

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