An elderly New Jersey woman claims her Constitutional rights are being violated after a local public housing authority ordered her to remove three small American flags from the balcony of her apartment and an expert on Constitutional law said she may have a case.
“I hung my flags out and they sent a maintenance man to take them down,” Dawn Paulus, of Phillipsburg, NJ, told Fox News Radio. “I left my flag up anyway.”
The 75-year-old said she has no intention of removing the flags – even though the Phillipsburg Housing Authority said the display violates the terms of her lease.
“He told me that I can’t have the flags because of the Nazi flags,” she said. “If I hung the American flag up and someone hung a Nazi flag up they couldn’t tell them to take the Nazi flag down and still let me fly the American flag.”
Paul Rummerfield, the executive director of the Phillipsburg Housing Authority, told Fox News Radio that under the Fair Housing Act they can’t discriminate when it comes to the kinds of flags tenants fly.
“Once you allow anyone to hang the American flag or any flag, then you have no recourse when someone hangs a flag that may be objectionable, such as a pirate or Confederate flag,” Rummerfield told The Express-Times newspaper.
However, he told Fox News Radio the issue with Paulus has nothing to do with the Fair Housing Act.
“It has everything to do with lease enforcement,” he said. “Tenants are not allowed to hang anything on the balcony.”
Rummerfield said there was also a safety issue. He said Paulus’ apartment is on the sixth floor. He said there were concerns the flags might fall.
“It’s not so much the flag as the bracket coming loose that we’re concerned about,” he said.
Brad Jacob, a constitutional law expert at Regent University, told Fox News Radio that Paulus may have a winnable case should she take the housing authority to court.
“This is so much of a core free speech issue,” he said. “I would think the government would need a stronger justification.”
Jacob said if Paulus lived in a private apartment complex she would not have a case because it would be a matter of abiding by a private contract.
“Because it’s the government the First Amendment comes into play,” he said. “Flying the flag is one of the purest examples of First Amendment speech and expression. It clearly implicates Constitutional issues when the government tries to tell you that you cannot speak.”
Jacob said the housing authority also runs into trouble with their outright ban on all flags.
“Their justification is we must ban all because some of it will offend,” he said. “Traditionally, that’s a losing argument. Traditionally, free speech wins out. And if someone is offended at another person’s speech, they’re just offended.”
Rummerfield called Paulus a good tenant and suggested that she “purchase a little table top flag” instead.
“We fly an American flag down at that facility,” he said. “It’s not about patriotism or respect for the flag or veterans. We recognize our residents’ patriotism by flying a flag.”
Paulus said residents are allowed to hang laundry over their porch railings – but not the American flag.
“These veterans fought for us for freedom and now you can’t even fly the flag for them,” she said.
But if she does not take the flags down, Rummerfield said she could be in violation of her lease – and that could possibly lead to eviction.
Paulus, who lives on a low income, said she hopes it doesn’t come to that.
“If I do, I don’t know where I’ll go,” she said. “I just want to stand up for my rights, that’s all.”