Hampshire College, a liberal arts institution of about 1,400 students, has taken some heat after deciding not to fly the U.S. flag.
A day after the presidential election, the Massachusetts college sided with students who lowered the flag to half-staff.
The administration wanted to build student rapport and facilitate discussion on what the flag represents.
That angered some people in the Amherst community, where the college is located.
And when someone lit the campus’ U.S. flag on fire Nov. 10, many more pushed back after the college decided to do away with flying the American flag, at least temporarily.
How things happened
For Veterans Day on Nov. 11, college officials replaced the burned U.S. flag and flew one full-staff.
The next day, Hampshire trustees voted to lower the banner to half-staff again, to continue the campus discussion on the flag’s meaning.
Flying the flag at half-staff “was meant as an expression of grief over the violent deaths being suffered in this country and globally, including the many U.S. service members who have lost their lives,” President Jonathan Lash said.
Lash regretted the college taking that action as it caused some “unintentional distress” over a traditional expression of mourning, school spokesman John Courtmanche told CNN.
On Monday, Lash announced in a Facebook statement that the college had decided on Nov. 18 that no flags, U.S. or otherwise, would fly over campus for the time being. But students can still fly their own flags.
“Our goal is to give voice to the range of viewpoints on campus across cultures, and hopefully find common ground,” Courtmanche said in a statement. “We’ve heard from members of our community that, for them and for many in our country, the flag is a powerful symbol of fear they’ve felt all their lives because they grew up as people of color, never feeling safe. For others, it’s a symbol of their highest aspirations for the country.”
John Velis, an Army veteran and state representative, called on the college president to reinstate the U.S. flag immediately.
“The president’s position fundamentally does not make sense to me,” Velis told CNN. “It is baseless, cowardly, a disgrace,” he added.
Tuesday, Velis wrote a letter addressed to Lash underscoring his position.
“Do I need to remind you, Mr. President, that discussions surrounding these above groups would not even be possible if not for the sacrifices of our service members and veterans,” he said.
“Mr. President, put back those flags,” Velis said.
On Facebook, an event has been created to rally behind the flag and show respect to U.S. soldiers and veterans.
“In solidarity to the sacrifices of the U.S. military, we are asking for everyday citizens to stand guard over our American Flag,” the event description says.
Courtmanche said the flag burning incident is still being investigated.
“We do not know who burned the flag,” he said. “We do not know if they were one or more students or any other group.
What are the laws behind flags?
The U.S. President tells the executive branch when to fly the flag half-staff, but it’s not a must-do for private individuals, says USA.gov, a government website.
“A local community, a company, a school district, or a federal agency can decide to have all of their flags at half-staff because of the death of an employee, a student, a mayor, or a local police officer,” the site explains.
Hampshire College’s flying the U.S. flag half-staff was intended to “create the space for meaningful and respectful dialogue across the many perspectives represented in our community,” says Lash.
As for the flag burning, U.S. flag desecration has angered people in the past.
In 1989, Congress passed a law against setting a U.S. flag on fire.
But the Supreme Court the following year halted the law’s enforcement, saying the law violated the Constitution’s First Amendment.
In this case, the Hampshire College’s flag belonged to the school so charges for property destruction may apply.
Other flag issues
Last year, student leaders at the University of California, Irvine, a public institution, vetoed a resolution prohibiting flags of any nation from being displayed in the lobby of student government offices.
While Hampshire College officials led the initiative to take down all flags, the administration at UCI distanced itself from the student-led action publicly.
In September, Occidental College in Los Angeles investigated the vandalism of a 9/11 memorial on campus after U.S. flags used in a display were tossed in the trash.
And, earlier this month, students burned a US flag on the campus of American University in Washington, D.C. after the presidential election.
Critics of Hampshire College’s actions say flying the flag half-staff has partisan undertones, Lash said.
“Some have perceived the action of lowering the flag as a commentary on the results of the presidential election — this, unequivocally, was not our intent,” he said.