By Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D.
In 2021, Ohio residents Joe and Christine Swantack received a notice from their HOA. “This notice is to serve as a reminder of our flag policy at New Albany Park Condominium. The blue line flag is not an approved flag.” A bill for fines and legal services has amounted to $1,289.00 from the homeowners’ association (HOA). Negotiations with the HOA were unsuccessful. The issue is now headed to federal court.
In Ohio, HOA covenants are enforceable through state statute. That makes the prohibition on the display of the blue line flag a state action against self-expression. The National Police Association (NPA) has filed suit on First Amendment grounds to protect the right of the Swantacks to express themselves by means of displaying this symbol of support. The NPA is a 501(c)3 Educational/Advocacy non-profit organization with experience in joining litigation on behalf of law enforcement and supporters of the police. Its mission is to educate supporters of law enforcement on how to aid police departments in accomplishing their goals. James Bopp Jr. of The Bopp Law Firm of Terre Haute, Indiana, counsel for Plaintiffs, stated “HOA covenants that prohibit the display of the Thin Blue Line flag are in violation of the First Amendment and the threats by the HOA to enforce their prohibition in court are without merit.”
The flag in question is a symbol of support for law enforcement. Its template is the American flag with its stars and stripes to embrace the American ideal, but the colors are black and white with the exception of one horizontal blue line. The symbolism of the mournful look reflecting lives given and devoted to peacekeeping and the thin line between chaos and order give those who bear the symbol, whether by flag, coffee mug, or window sticker, a chance to voice their support for police officers. The Swantacks have great respect for those who protect and serve our communities. Christine is a veteran Navy corpsman, having served full-time and in the Naval Reserve for over ten years. Joe has a legacy of military service in his family and works as a civilian contracting from time to time with the Department of Defense.
The blue line flag stood for years alongside the red Maltese cross of firefighters and the blue and white star of life symbol for paramedics with little controversy. The thin line imagery likely originated from the outnumbered, red-coated regiment of Scottish soldiers bravely trying to hold ground from the enemy during the Crimean war. Their tenacity and willingness to sacrifice became known as the thin red line. Blue as a color of loyalty is traced back to the middle ages that a particular blue clothing dye from the town of Coventry, England was of such high quality that it remained true blue and did not fade.
The suit argues that NPA (which has an ownership interest in the flag) and the Swantacks are “suffering irreparable harm in not being permitted to exercise their First Amendment rights to freedom of expression as described herein.” This is no exaggeration. The stifling and muffling of peaceful expressions of support for police officers is no small matter. The co-opting and redefining of symbols as unacceptable is a plague on the great American tradition of free expression. Behind the prohibition against the blue line flag lurks the threat, not just of technical rule-breaking, but the implication that supporting the police is somehow wrong and offensive. The beauty of the thin blue line and the flag in which it is embedded should stand as a unifying force among people of good faith and peaceful intention. It must not be relegated to the ever-increasing waste bin of political correctness.