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At A Georgia University, Tension Between Free Speech, Patriotism Sparks Protest

An incident that sparked tensions between the ideals of patriotism and free speech has culminated in a mass protest that shut down the campus of Valdosta State University in south Georgia on Friday.

According to several local media outlets, thousands of protesters from around the state flooded onto the college campus to fly American flags.

Reporter Matt Belanger, of Atlanta's WSB-TV, reported that protesters came in on motorcycles, carried large and small flags and chanted "U.S.A., U.S.A., U.S.A.!"

All of this started last weekend, when Air Force veteran Michelle Manhart tried to take an American flag from protesters who were desecrating it. The incident made regional news, because someone recorded the confrontation on video (careful, there's a fleeting expletive):

"This belongs actually to the entire United States," Manhart is heard saying in the video. But one of the protesters tells a police officer that the flag actually belongs to her and he should take it away from Manhart.

Eventually police use force to do just that and the person recording the video asks the police officers repeatedly why they didn't defend the American flag.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that the university banned Manhart from its campus and Dr. William J. McKinney, the university president, wrote a letter addressing the incident.

He said the university has an unwavering commitment to military veterans. But it also has an unwavering commitment to the ideal of free expression.

McKinney explained:

"While we respect the strong feelings held by many regarding our nation and its symbols, we also respect the rights of our students, faculty, and staff to express themselves through constitutionally protected symbolic expression in an environment that encourages, rather than discourages, civil debate. The events of April 17, and those in its aftermath, display just such expression.

"In 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in the Texas v. Johnson case that the First Amendment protects symbolic political expression, even with the American flag. As Justice Brennan stated in that decision, 'If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.'"

For their part, the organizers of today's protest said they were protesting at the university campus to "show the school, the [Black Panther Party, which they believe was the group that desecrated the flag] and the Airmen of Moody Air Force Base that we will not waiver in standing up for of nation, our flag or our soldiers. Please join us and pass this around."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.

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