A 15-year-old case of a deceased N.C. military veteran, asked by his neighborhood’s developer to take down an American flag flying on a pole on his lawn, is now campaign fodder in Richard Burr and Deborah Ross’ fight for a U.S. Senate seat.
The dispute dates back to Ross’ time as executive director of North Carolina’s state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. Ultimately, land owners agreed to change neighborhood covenants to allow for residents to fly American flags, according to public real estate records from Caldwell County, but not before the man asked for – and was denied – help from the ACLU.
Ross, a Democrat and former state legislator who is also an attorney, is challenging two-term U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, R-Winston-Salem. Burr has said 2016 is the last time he’ll seek reelection.
This week, Burr’s campaign and a national Republican super PAC criticized Ross’ time at the ACLU and the organization’s decision not to take on the veteran’s case in 2001. The Washington Free Beacon, a conservative-leaning political news site in Washington, D.C., quoted a spokesman from the Republican Senate Leadership Fund as saying it’s “appalling” Ross and the North Carolina ACLU didn’t defend the veteran in court.
Senator Burr and his allies are going back 15 years to try and attack Deborah’s work to defend the Constitution and free speech.
Cole Leiter, spokesman for Deborah Ross
“This is another example of Deborah Ross’ radical tenure as the chief lobbyist for the ACLU,” Jesse Hunt, spokesman for Burr’s campaign, said in a statement Thursday.
“Ross will have to explain to the roughly 775,000 veterans in North Carolina – all of whom admirably signed on the dotted line to defend the flag and what it stands for – and other American patriots why she would allow someone to destroy our country’s flag, but won’t stand up for someone who wants to fly it,” Hunt said in the statement.
Ross has said flag-burning is a type of symbolic speech and should be protected as a constitutional freedom and public expression.
“Flag burning is plain wrong, and I’ll stand up for free speech – even speech I don’t like,” Ross said Thursday in a statement to McClatchy.
“Senator Burr and his allies are going back 15 years to try and attack Deborah’s work to defend the Constitution and free speech,” Ross campaign spokesman Cole Leiter said in a statement. “Deborah’s dad served as a doctor in the Air Force during the Vietnam era. She understands what it means to stand up for our service members and the freedoms they fought to defend.”
Ross declined to be interviewed Thursday. Although one letter to the ACLU was addressed to Ross, responses back to the resident, Robert McClure Jr., were signed by a staff attorney. Ross’ campaign said she does not recall hearing about the man’s request while she was at the ACLU.
The criticism this week of Ross stems from the letter the Granite Falls, N.C., man wrote to the ACLU in 2001, asking the organization to take up his case as a free speech issue. The property developer was pursuing legal action against him, saying the flag pole and other structures on his land violated restrictive covenants in the land deed.
“I have made it clear that I will not submit to the removal of my flag and pole. ... I am however only one person standing alone at this time and I need help,” McClure wrote in 2001.
An ACLU attorney wrote McClure back, declining to take on the case. The Free Beacon posted copies of correspondence online, showing ACLU attorneys cited the group’s limited resources and its opinion that proving a violation of his free speech would be difficult in a lawsuit.
Fred Pike, an attorney in Lenior, North Carolina, who filed a complaint on behalf of the property developer in 2001, told McClatchy in an interview Thursday that the flagpole wasn’t the only alleged violation of restrictive covenants at the time. The developer, Pike said, also had concerns about the man carrying a gun around the neighborhood and other unauthorized structures he’d built on the property.
“I think it resolved itself,” Pike said, adding that he couldn’t remember how the dispute was settled but said he doesn’t remember a court trial over the flag issue.
This isn’t the first time Ross’ ACLU work and history with the flag has come up on the campaign trail.
Last month, the National Republican Senatorial Committee promoted a social media Snapchat geofilter critical of Ross’ flag-burning and free speech stance. The Supreme Court, including conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in February, has ruled that flag-burning or desecration is symbolic speech, protected under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Since 1995, members of Congress have tried multiple times to pass a constitutional amendment to prohibit burning the American flag. Burr, as a U.S. House member and senator, has supported such an amendment. However, the proposals have yet to garner enough support and Republicans have not tried to pass such a bill since 2006.
McClure died Aug. 6, 2012, at a veterans hospital in Asheville, North Carolina. He was 58.