PHILADELPHIA - The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and cooperating attorneys from Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP filed suit today against Washington Township, its chief of police, and Police Officer Scott Miller on behalf of Joseph Yamrus, who was charged last year under a Pennsylvania statute that makes it a crime to "insult" an American flag or the flag of the Commonwealth.
In the spring of 2007, Yamrus chose to express his disagreement with the role of certain members of Congress in Middle East policy. "I was against some of the things the government did with going overseas with respect to Syria, and so I flew the flag upside down, and it is still flying upside down," said Yamrus. As a veteran, Yamrus knew that flying a flag upside-down is an internationally recognized distress signal. On March 30, a neighbor who misunderstood the symbol to suggest opposition to the war in Iraq complained to the local police.
Washington Township Officer Scott Miller ordered Yamrus to turn his flag around or take it down. Yamrus explained his reasons for flying the flag upside-down and offered to explain the purpose of the flag display speak to the neighbor. He refused to take it down or turn it right-side-up.
Officer Miller issued Yamrus a citation under 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 2103, a Pennsylvania law that makes it illegal to "insult" the flag of either the United States of America or the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The charges were dropped by the Northampton County district attorney after Yamrus' attorney contacted the local magistrate.
"The fact that Mr. Yamrus chose to express his political views by a symbol of distress, rather than words of distress, does not make his freedom of expression any less protected by the First Amendment," said Paul Saint-Antoine, an attorney at Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP representing Yamrus in this lawsuit.
Since 1972, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has held that a Pennsylvania law that makes it a crime to "defile" a flag cannot be used to punish political or expressive use of a flag, even if some would find that use offensive. The U.S. Supreme Court made similar rulings in the 1980s.
The complaint filed today asserts that Washington Township and its police department violated Yamrus' First Amendment right to free speech when they sought to prosecute him for what they knew was political speech. "The most important function of the First Amendment is to allow Mr. Yamrus and you and me to express our agreement and disagreement with government action. That right should not depend on whether our neighbors agree with our views or the way we communicate them," said Mary Catherine Roper, staff attorney for the ACLU.
The complaint also asks the court to declare the statute unconstitutional as applied to Mr. Yamrus' political expression.
Since his arrest, Yamrus and his wife have been subjected to anonymous threatening phone calls, physical intrusion on his property, and shouted insults and obscenities from people driving by his home.
Ironically, as alleged in the complaint, when Yamrus went to the police station to discuss the charge, he saw a dirty, faded and torn American flag displayed at the entrance. Yamrus told the Washington Township Police that he thought hanging of a tattered and soiled American flag, out of neglect, was a greater offense to the nation than his flying the flag upside down to express his political views. The police department promptly replaced its torn American flag.
The suit, Yamrus v. Township of Washington, et al, was filed today in federal district court in Philadelphia. A copy of the complaint is available at: /downloads/Yamruscomplaint.PDF