By Michael Howell
Stevensville resident and veteran Anthony Pace showed up in full dress uniform, supported by family, friends, and neighbors last Thursday evening to see if the Stevensville Town Council could help him out in his effort to get his neighbor, Stevensville firefighter Brandon Dewey, to shine a light on the American flag that he flies continually, night and day, on his front porch.
Pace quoted Montana law to the effect that a person commits the offense of desecration of flags “if the person purposely or knowingly: publicly mutilates, defiles, or casts contempt upon the flag.” Pace claims that Dewey is casting contempt on the flag by flying it at night without proper illumination. Pace’s father, a friend named Mike and a neighbor supported him in his claim. Pace noted that the penalty for violation of the law is imprisonment for not more than 10 years or a fine of up to $50,000, or both.
Pace said he complained to Dewey and that Dewey showed up at his house in a Stevensville Firefighter’s uniform and insulted him. He thinks Dewey should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. He presented some photographs that he said proved his case.
Councilor Bill Perrin noted that the flag could be seen under ambient street lighting in the photos, when the porch light was turned off. Pace said that things were darker than they appear in the digital photos.
Pace filed a complaint with the Stevensville Police Department on March 26. Police Chief James Marble called state and federal officials to see if there was a law requiring a light on the flag at night and was told that there were no state or federal laws requiring it. He subsequently turned the complaint over to the County Attorney’s office in order to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest.
Pace said that was not good enough and he wanted the Town to take a stand.
Mayor Gene Mim Mack said that he had spoken with Dewey about possible misperceptions when he does private business in his town firefighter uniform. He said that was as far as his authority extends. He said he had no authority over the flag situation, nor in his opinion did the Town Council.
Pace said that he wanted the maximum punishment for breaking the law. He said it gave Stevensville a black eye to let Dewey continue to “abuse the American flag every night.”
Councilor Desera Towle complained about not being told anything about Pace’s concerns in advance of the meeting. She thought the mayor should have informed her prior to the meeting. She said that she was aware of the flag protocol requiring a light at night and was perplexed that it had become an issue.
Pace said, “I will take this to the national stage. If I have to I’ll stand out there every night and salute that flag. I will make this a national circus if I have to.”
Later in the council comment portion of the meeting, Councilor Perrin said that he felt the public forum was misleading because they only heard from one side of the controversy. He said that Dewey had worked personally on erecting the flag pole at Town Hall and seeing that it had appropriate illumination. He also noted that Dewey had placed a solar light aimed at the flag on his porch, but that the neighbor “was apparently not satisfied.”
Councilor Ron Klaphake said that he wished someone would make the problem go away.
Mayor Mim Mack said that it was not in his authority to make the problem go away. He said that it was in the power of the people involved and anyone had a right to come to the Town with a grievance.
“It’s a case of interpretation of the law and either side could make the problem go away,” he said.
Pace did seek support for his actions from the American Legion, but did not get what he wanted from them, either.
In response to his letter requesting their help in the affair, Bill Sloan of American Legion Internal Affairs wrote to Pace, reminding him that no penalty is prescribed for non-compliance to the Flag Code. “The Code functions simply as a guide to be voluntarily followed by civilians and civilian groups,” he wrote.
He noted that violations of the Code could be easily enforced on military bases, “But think about trying to enforce the Flag Code against citizens and on private property… nobody would dare display the flag at home for fear of being prosecuted if found in violation of some small sentence or phrase in the U.S. Flag Code.”
“The American Legion instead applauds and supports any person who publicly displays the flag—even if all the provisions of the flag code are not met in all respects. The key here is that the household is proud of and flies the flag out of love and respect for our country,” he wrote, also noting that ambient light is sufficient if the flag can be identified in the darkness.
Sloan also points out that, “In the United States today it is perfectly legal to treat the flag with contempt far beyond failing to make sure it can be seen at night. Such contemptible conduct as burning, stomping, spitting on, and other worse treatment has been held by the Supreme Court to be a matter of ‘free speech’.” He suggests that instead of pressing his complaints against another citizen who honors the flag by displaying it, that he redirect his energy to supporting a constitutional amendment that would allow states to establish and enforce laws protecting the flag from acts of desecration.