MOORESVILLE – Statesville is set to surrender in a serial spat with Camping World CEO Marcus Lemonis over the size of an American flag flying over his dealership along Interstate 77.
Mooresville doesn’t have the same problem, even though Gander Outdoors, also run by Lemonis, flies the same-sized American flag (40-by-80 feet) at its store at I-77 Exit 36.
The town, like the city of Statesville, does have an ordinance restricting the size of flags. But there is one stark difference.
“Flags … representing United States government bodies” are not subject to Mooresville’s 24-square-foot limit, nor its maximum pole height of 25 feet.
That provision, says a lawyer who specializes in government law, has the potential to land the town in more than just a social media war like Statesville’s.
That’s because Mooresville’s ordinance likely would be found unconstitutional if challenged in court, said Adam Lovelady, a lawyer at the UNC School of Government.
Signs of the times
In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that local governments could not prohibit or limit the size of signs based on their content, as long as what is printed on them isn’t a promotion for a business or other commercial enterprise. In legal terms, flags are treated as signs, so the case also set a legal precedent for banners.
The ruling, in Arizona case Reid vs. Gilbert, “pretty much lays out that if the town is going to allow for some non-commercial speech, it has to allow for all non-commercial speech,” Lovelady explained. “So if you’re allowing for a non-commercial flag, you would have to allow for all non-commercial flags, without regard to type.”
It was that distinction that led Statesville to make the ordinance change that ultimately triggered the social-media tirade from Lemonis, the viral vitriol that followed and the more than 300,000 signatures on a Change.org petition blasting the city for its perceived punt of patriotism.
A divided Statesville City Council approved flag-size restrictions after the N.C. Chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans announced their intention to install Confederate flags in every county, along every interstate highway in the state. With I-77 and I-40 each running for miles through Statesville, the city likely would be a prime target for Confederate flag placement.
Controlling the potential size was a way for the city to at least limit the visibility of Confederate flags, if they were installed in Statesville.
That – or any – level of legal nuance was absent in Lemonis’ online laments.
“Many cities like Statesville have requested that Camping World and Gander Outdoors take down their American Flags,” Camping World declared in its Change.org petition. “WE WON'T DO IT! Stand with us. This is about more than just the flag. This is about our Veterans, Military, and the men and women that have sacrificed for this great country. They are the reason we fly the flag and they are the reason we will NOT take it down!”
The implication, swallowed whole by instant critics nationwide with no context of how Lemonis and Statesville had gotten to their High Noon duel, was that the city was telling Camping World that it couldn’t fly ANY American flag, not that the dispute was merely about the size of the flag the dealership ran up its 130-foot pole.
But that all may be a moot point soon. The Statesville Planning Board has approved removing the size restrictions, and a majority of city council members have reportedly signaled their support for the change. Which means there will be no restrictions on any flags, including potential Confederate banners.
That’s not the case in Mooresville.
“(A) Confederate flag would be limited to a size requirement of 24 square feet and the pole height would be limited to 25 feet, as (the flag) does not represent a U.S. government body,” a Mooresville spokeswoman replied in an email to questions about the town’s ordinance.
Lovelady said he’s not surprised that Mooresville – along with other municipalities – hasn’t kept up with U.S. Supreme Court precedent.
“A lot of ordinances prior to the Reid decision had those kinds of provisions,” he said. “In some cases, they’re still on the books because no one has challenged them.”
And that’s the ultimate irony. While Mooresville has kept a likely unconstitutional ordinance in place, Statesville, in doing its legal homework and trying to protect the city and its people from potential embarrassment, will end up waving a white flag after suffering the very same kind of humiliation it was trying to prevent.
John Deem is editor of Lake Norman Publications.