Confederate Flag Ban Relaxed in California

California prohibits its government agencies from selling or displaying the Confederate flag. But in a settlement of a lawsuit by an artist, who had to wait a year before his Civil War painting that included the Stars and Bars could be shown at a state-sponsored fair, the state has agreed that the ban doesn't apply to private citizens on state property.

By Bob Egelko

California prohibits its government agencies from selling or displaying the Confederate flag. But in a settlement of a lawsuit by an artist, who had to wait a year before his Civil War painting that included the Stars and Bars could be shown at a state-sponsored fair, the state has agreed that the ban doesn't apply to private citizens on state property.

The Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown approved the flag ban in 2014, saying the Confederate battle emblem symbolized slavery and oppression. A year later, the ban was invoked by officials at the Big Fresno Fair, an annual event on state property, to prevent Timothy Desmond from entering his painting "The Attack," an 1864 battle scene, in the fair's art competition because it showed the Confederate flag.

Desmond sued, represented by the Center for Individual Rights, and the state agreed to allow the painting in the 2016 fair. He pressed ahead with the suit and won a settlement Tuesday that promises the same thing won't happen to anyone else.

The law banning Confederate flag displays "applies only to the state of California and not to private individuals," Attorney General Xavier Becerra's office said in a U.S. District Court filing. The state's lawyers acknowledged that the ban does not affect "the rights of private individuals to carry, display, or sell a Confederate flag or any similar image either on private or government property" and does not authorize the state to restrict private display or sale of the flag or its portrayals.

The settlement did not include any financial payments. But the Center for Individual Rights, a conservative-leaning civil rights nonprofit, said it was a victory for freedom of speech.

"The First Amendment is clear: The state may not ban the expression of certain points of view simply because some find them distasteful," said the organization's president, Terry Pell. "Freedom of speech has costs, whether in the form of hurt feelings of those who are forced to listen or the cost of police necessary to protect against the riots that sometimes result."

(c)2017 the San Francisco Chronicle

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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