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Court sides with veteran who flew flag upside down

May 27, 2011 |  4:40 pm

Kze7p9nc The Veterans Administration violated the free speech rights of a veteran who flew the American flag upside down on the fence at the agency’s sprawling West Los Angeles medical center campus to protest what he saw as a failure to use the property to help fellow veterans, particularly homeless ones, a U.S District Court judge has ruled.

U.S. District Judge S. James Otero made the ruling Thursday in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of 68-year-old Robert Rosebrock last year after Veterans Affairs police seized the flag. But the judge did not grant a permanent injunction.

 "On this Memorial Day weekend, it's good to know that the courts are recognizing the right to free speech that veterans have fought and died to defend," Rosebrock said. "This land was deeded for the use and care of veterans and is being stolen away.... The Flag Code allows for the flag to be displayed upside down when property is in danger. It's clear to us that this property is in danger, and has been for a long time."

Rosebrock has led a group of military veterans in a protest of what they claim is the VA's commercialization of the Wilshire Boulevard medical center's grounds.  VA officials paid little attention to the Sunday protest for the first two years by a small band of mostly aging veterans holding signs and displaying American flags outside the medical center's gates.

Then, in June 2009, Rosebrock attached the upended Stars and Stripes to the hospital grounds' fence in as "a symbol of distress." With the hospital associate director saying she considered the display to be "a desecration of the flag" and fearing that mental health patients might have been sensitive to an "inappropriate display on VA property," federal police took action.

Poice cited Rosebrock six times for unauthorized demonstrations on VA property and removed the flags. The VA later requested that a federal court dismiss the citations. 

In a written ruling, the judge found that the veteran had "established that his First Amendment right was violated as a matter of law when Defendants committed impermissible viewpoint discrimination."

But the judge refused a request for a permanent injunction. He noted that Rosebrock's "conviction to shine light on the plight of homeless veterans is undoubtedly laudable. In his zealous quest to right a perceived wrong, Plaintiff may in fact cause greater harm to the very community he seeks to serve.

"Hanging the flag upside down was an important and necessary message for Mr. Rosebrock," said Peter Eliasberg, legal director for the ACLU of Southern California.  "He fought to defend the 1st Amendment, and the court decided correctly that the very right he fought for was violated."


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-- Richard Winton

Photo: Robert Rosebrock, left, and Ernie Hilger, both Army veterans, hold an American flag upside down as "a symbol of distress" outside the Veterans Affairs medical center campus in West Los Angeles. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times