WHEAT RIDGE, Colo. — An American flag waving upside down outside a home in this west Denver suburb to protest the Iraq war has touched off a battle over free speech in neighborhoods governed by homeowners' associations.
Retired banker Beth Hammer hung the flag the upside-down on March 19, the fourth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq.
Hanging the flag with the blue field and white stars on the bottom is considered a sign of distress under the federal flag code and has drawn the ire of some in her community and the homeowners' association.
"I think the war in Iraq has put this country in distress," Hammer said. "We are losing lives, liberty and our honor."
The Cambridge Park Homeowners Association notified Hammer in an April 24 letter that the flag was in violation of the association's "patriotic and political expression policy."
"These restrictions are not meant as an inconvenience or an invasion of your freedom, but rather as a means of maintaining harmony in your community," said the letter from association manager Melissa Keithly.
The HOA held a hearing on the issue July 11 and said it would decide within 10 days whether to fine Hammer and her husband, Doug — a member of the HOA board who has recused himself from all meetings concerning the flag — for violating the policy. They face fines of up to $500 per violation which could be applied retroactively to the date the flag was hung.
Hammer's lawyer, Mari Newman, said the five-member board wouldn't allow her to present evidence of other residents who were violating HOA rules on flags but who were never cited.
"There were flags dirtied and soiled in the flower pots," Newman said. "None of these people have been told they had to take the flag down."
Hammer said most of her neighbors were against her protest. Some others, she said, supported it, but they were rare.
"(One neighbor) wanted a 'public condemnation' of us. I'm not sure what that means. A scarlet letter? A witch burning? I'm supposed to do a mea culpa before the public? I'm not sure what they wanted," she said.
Hammer hung her flag upside before in nearby Lakewood, where she lived until 2004. She said some neighbors there were angry, too, but she did not live in a covenant-controlled community. But she decided not to put up the flag in Wheat Ridge "until our neighbors got to know us for who we are and not to judge us on how we hung our flag," she said.
"I don't think of myself as a rabble-rouser," Hammer said. "To me, it's my personal protest as a First Amendment right to free speech."