Date: July 21, 2007
Byline: Joe McDonald
Flag protest turns folks upside down
Flag protest turns folks upside down
Joseph Yamrus stands in front of his Molasses Road home in Washington Township, Northampton County, tattooed arms folded, striking a defiant pose as an American flag flaps upside down in the background.
The white-haired, white-bearded 64-year-old retired trucker is not sending a distress signal, as the upside-down flag would indicate according to the Federal Flag Code. And he's not railing against the war in Iraq, as is more common in protests involving the flag.
Instead, he's protesting calls for troop withdrawals from Iraq.
Yamrus' protest got him arrested last month, but Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli dropped the charge, saying the state law under which he was charged is unconstitutional because the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled flag-burning is protected speech.
Yamrus hoisted the upside-down flag around the time when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Syria, a trip she made in April despite being asked by the Bush administration not to go.
''The speaker of the House has no business going over there,'' said Yamrus, dressed in a Civil War rebel hat with a toothpick dangling from his lip. And he doesn't like all that talk about pulling troops out of Iraq.
''I don't think [politicians] should be doing that,'' he said, standing by his flag, which is illuminated at night, following one of the many rules of etiquette for flying Old Glory.
At least two people, including Washington Township police officer Scott E. Miller, thought Yamus' flag-flying was out of line. Miller found it not only offensive but against the law.
Or at least he thought it was after researching the section of state crimes code called ''Insults to the National or Commonwealth Flag,'' and the Federal Flag Code.
The upside-down flag protest also upset Tania Meixsell of Bangor. Meixsell, 27, filed a complaint against Yamrus in May after she and her Army reservist husband, Scott, and their four children noticed the flag flying upside down while coming home from a trip to a pizza parlor.
''We were very upset and thought maybe it was a mistake at first,'' she said. Days later they realized ''he was intentionally doing it,'' she said, and went to the police.
Later when she learned the rationale behind the protest, Meixsell said she agreed with his position but not his tactics.
''I think it sends the wrong message,'' she said. ''I don't like it. He could go about it in a different way.''
Joyce Doody, executive director of the National Flag Foundation, a nonprofit flag education organization based in Pittsburgh, agreed.
She said the flag is a symbol of the sacrifices made to preserve the liberties and ideals behind the founding of the country.
''It's not a partisan or political symbol,'' she said. ''And it is not an appropriate vehicle for demonstrations for or against an issue.''
But it seems increasingly the flag is becoming a political football. A woman near Denver, Colo., caused a stir in her gated community in March when she displayed the flag upside down in protest of the war. The homeowners association in her development found her in violation of the association's ''patriotic and political expression policy.'' They threatened to fine her, but decided Friday not to penalize her because of the possible court costs, according to the Rocky Mountain News Web site.
After asking Yamrus three times to take down the upside-down flag, Miller charged him with insults to the national or commonwealth flag, a second-degree misdemeanor. But the case was over before it even got to a hearing before District Judge Todd Strohe in Bangor.
''The case is being squashed by the district attorney,'' Miller said. He said he was told by the district attorney's office that it was ''not willing to prosecute the case.''
''Under the interpretation of the district attorney, he feels it's not a black-and-white issue,'' Miller said. ''I'm very discouraged at Mr. Morganelli's decision to withdraw this charge.''
Morganelli said he had no choice ''because that statute is unconstitutional.'' He said he didn't fault the officer for not knowing it was unenforceable.
Morganelli was referring to a 1989 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, which found that flag burning is protected speech.
If someone can burn the flag and not face arrest, Morganelli asked, how can someone be arrested for flying it upside down?
''It's a completely unenforceable statute,'' he said. ''That's why the U.S. Congress has been trying to pass a constitutional amendment to protect the flag.''
Yamrus' lawyer, Gary Asteak of Easton, said the law is unconstitutional because it improperly infringes on freedom of expression.
''He was merely expressing his displeasure with the government and individual members of the government,'' Asteak said.
Asteak said he believes the incident illustrates the friction the war is creating in the country.
''I think it also highlights how strained the situation has become where police officers think they can enforce what are in fact political issues,'' he said.
Meanwhile, Yamrus said, he intends to keep flying the flag upside down indefinitely.
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