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'Offensive' flag in Evansdale protected by freedom of speech laws

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EVANSDALE – A flag flown in the front yard of a home has some residents riled up, but officials say there’s nothing they can do about it.

A resident of the home at 524 Evans Road is flying a flag with profane language and an anti-Joe Biden sentiment under the United States flag. It reads: “(Expletive) Biden. And (expletive) you for voting for him.”

The Evansdale Police Department said it has received multiple complaints about the Biden flag, which some residents find offensive.

“It’s protected by the First Amendment and there’s not much that can be done about it,” said Evansdale Police Chief Michael Dean.

Evansdale Mayor Dick Dewater also has received complaints about the flag.

“It’s definitely protected speech, but it’s definitely offensive to many of our residents,” he said. “Politics aside – offensive language is offensive language.”

According to the Black Hawk County Assessor’s Office, Steve and Cindy Koleno are the owners of the home. Steve Koleno declined to comment to The Courier.

Evansdale resident Laura Edmondson said she is appalled by the flag, which is near a grocery store on one of the city’s main roads.

“When I go to buy a source of media such as music, movies, magazines, books and so forth they all come with a warning. I’m driving down my road and I then see the trigger word that qualifies such warning labels on a flag — with no warning,” Edmondson said. “If it comes with warning labels and consequences in all other forms of media, it should be in this situation as well.”

Black Hawk County Attorney Brian Williams said the language is not considered obscene under Iowa Code.

“There’s nothing in the state code that comes close,” he said.

Iowa Code Chapter 728 defines obscene material as “any material depicting or describing the genitals, sex acts, masturbation, excretory functions or sadomasochistic abuse which the average person, taking the material as a whole and applying contemporary community standards with respect to what is suitable material for minors, would find appeals to the prurient interest and is patently offensive; and the material, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, scientific, political or artistic value.”

While Dean agrees with concerns it reflects poorly on the community, “It’s still constitutionally protected,” he said.

A Facebook post by the city of Evansdale stated Dewater researched similar cases that went as far as the U.S. Supreme Court. The post discusses the landmark case Cohen v. California in 1971.

Paul Robert Cohen was convicted with disturbing the peace by wearing a jacket displaying the words, “(Expletive) the Draft” in the Los Angeles Courthouse in the 1960s. The case advanced to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reversed the conviction and deemed the government cannot criminalize the display of profane words in public spaces, citing, “For, while the particular four-letter word being litigated here is perhaps more distasteful than most others of its genre, it is nevertheless often true that one man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric.”

“The ruling set a precedent used in future cases concerning the power of states to regulate free speech in order to maintain public civility,” the post said.

Rita Bettis Austen, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, agreed.

“Political speech, even if it’s expressed in unartful, unpopular, or offensive ways, is at the heart of the First Amendment. Our Constitution was designed to protect debate at the fringes.”

Bettis Austen also said “popular speech doesn’t need First Amendment protection, because the government doesn’t try to restrict it. It’s the offensive, unpopular, sometimes even hurtful speech which gets targeted for censorship by the government and that the First Amenment is aimed at protecting.

“Remember that if the government can restrict what your neighbor says, it can restrict what you say, too.”

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The month of May will officially be proclaimed Bike Month in Evansdale by Mayor Dick Dewater. He will make the announcement at the City Council meeting at 6 p.m. Tuesday.

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