A would-be flag burner was driven off the campus of Louisiana State University by a crowd of angry counter-protestors, many carrying American flags and chanting, ‘USA, USA.’
The student, identified as Benjamin Haas, was ultimately not allowed to burn the flag because he lacked a local burn permit. He wanted to torch the flag to show his support for another student who was arrested last week for burning a flag after Usama bin Laden was killed.
“He went through all the proper channels, applied for permits and met with LSU police,” said Ernie Ballard, the university’s media relations director. But, he said Haas needed a separate permit from the parish.
After a last-minute meeting with the dean of students, Haas agreed to follow the law and forego the burning. Instead, Haas decided to read a statement. When that happened, the crowd erupted into cheers and jeers, many shouting, “Go to hell, hippie, go to hell.”
“You had a lot of people on both sides of the debate getting into a lot of fights,” said James Haralson, manager of Tiger TV, the university television station. “The students started yelling obscenities at him. People started throwing bottles at him.”
Haralson, who filmed the protest, said he was hit by a bottle, but was not injured. He said Haas was surrounded by police officers on horseback and as they protest swelled, they moved him to a safer location.
“At that point, all the students began rushing him, continuing to throw trash at him,” he said. “He was finally escorted into a cop car in the street and students were banging on the cop car.”
“It was definitely an emotional scene,” he said.
Ballard said to his knowledge no one was injured and no one was arrested. He also stressed that the university did not endorse the flag burning.
“LSU is definitely not putting their stamp on the event,” he said. “This is not an event LSU is endorsing, but we are allowing a student to have his constitutional rights on campus.”
The counter-protest was organized by Cody Wells, the student government association president. He was upset that Haas was planning to burn the flag.
“This is not accepted by students at LSU,” Wells said. “Students are outraged by this and I feel like the nation is seeing the story as LSU students are burning the flag when it reality it is one man doing this.”
Wells, 21, had invited students and the community to join in a public recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance and a singing of the National Anthem.
“It’s time that my generation stand up for what they believe in and exercise their freedom of speech and let people know that we are not okay with this,” he said. “I am angry that an individual would want to do this at a public higher education institution,” he said.
That anger is shared by the American Legion. Duane Mercier, a spokesman for the group, said they were heartened by the counter-protest but they were also disturbed that a war memorial had been desecrated.
“That’s the saddest part of this whole story that they would desecrate this memorial to the veterans who have served their country,” he said.
Wells said he does not fault university officials for granting permission for the flag burning, noting that they could not legally infringe on the student’s right to burn the flag.
“If they did, they would have lawsuits filed against them,” he said. “It may be allowed constitutionally, but it is not socially acceptable to burn this flag.”
Ballard said so long as the protest is peaceful and follows campus procedures, they typically grant permits and “look at all protests equally.”
But what about if a student wanted to burn a religious book, like the Koran?
“I’m not sure of the approval process,” Ballard said. “They would definitely have to look through it.”