From The Post and Courier

After pushback on flying rebel flags over Interstate 26, Secessionist Party plans another protest

It was legal for the Secessionist Party to stand on an overpass near Summerville and wave rebel flags at drivers traveling at highway speeds below. And they say they’re going to do it again.

The state Department of Transportation said Wednesday that as long as a flag or other display isn’t attached to a structure, the law allows it. The issue arose in the wake of the secessionists flying Confederate battle flags Sunday over Interstate 26.

We have decided to hold a second flagging of Summerville in the upcoming weeks; special thanks due to Rep. (Wendell) Gilliard,” said party Chairman James Bessenger. “We likely won’t announce this one beforehand, though. We want it to be a surprise.”

Gilliard, D-Charleston, is questioning the legality of flying the flag on a major highway overpass. The group contends it’s within its rights, and local law enforcement appears to have had no problem with the distraction.

“This is an illegal — not to mention hazardous — practice,” Gilliard said.

It is illegal to attach a banner or display to a bridge that is visible from a main highway, said DOT spokesman Pete Poore. But if a flag or banner is carried on a pole by pedestrians within the right of way by those who are exercising their First Amendment rights, it would be up to law enforcement to take action if it becomes a safety issue, Poore said.

Asked why affixed items are a potential distraction and held items aren’t, Poore said “I’m afraid you’ll have to ask those who wrote the law.”

The Secessionist Party on Sunday held what it called the “First flagging of Summerville” by flying flags on hand-carried poles from North Main Street over Interstate 26. The move was in response to a complaint that another group, the Sons of Confederate Veterans, handed out Confederate flags at the Flowertown Festival.

“Nothing was affixed to the bridge,” Bessenger said of Sunday’s effort. “Law enforcement came up there three separate times that day and said we were perfectly legal.”

Gilliard disagreed.

“There is no doubt in my mind that the flag is being affixed to the overpass,” he said.

U.S. Highway 17A is in the jurisdiction of Summerville Police Department, which issued a statement to The Post and Courier on the matter Wednesday.

“The Summerville Police Department takes matters that may negatively affect the motoring public’s safety seriously and will enforce the laws applicable to the State of South Carolina,” Lt. Nick Santanna said in an email. “That being said, we also understand the right for citizens to peacefully assemble to exercise their freedom of speech.”

On Sunday, when officers observed “an object” affixed to the bridge “officers made contact with the individual(s) that affixed the object and advised them on the law. At that time, the object was removed,” Santanna wrote.

Asked about the flap at his monthly “Chat with the Mayor” Wednesday, Summerville Mayor Wiley Johnson said he “wasn’t going to get into a debate” on the issue.

“I think they have a right to free speech,” he said. “They’re out there waving the flag and not everybody likes that but this is a country of free speech and I think a lot of us ought to be real thankful for that.”

He added that “Obviously, you can’t cause an unsafe situation.”

Gilliard wrote a letter to DOT chief counsel Linda McDonald asking her to alert state and local law enforcement agencies to “enforce this law at once.”

“South Carolina can ill afford to have a major catastrophe on these highways,” he said. “And here we are coming off of Mother Emanuel and all the other violence here in this state but yet people still find time to promote hate.”

DOT’s North Charleston office has forwarded Gilliard’s letter to the Berkeley County Sheriff’s Office, the Summerville Police Department and the local Highway Patrol district, Poore said.

“The Highway Patrol’s primary concern is for public safety,” said Sgt. Bob Beres. “We would remind protesters to be mindful of the motoring public and to refrain from creating a distraction for drivers.”

Violation of the law is a misdemeanor and it carries a fine of up to $100 or up to 30 days in jail.