Protest or Vandalism? Flag Desecration at St. Mary’s Post Office Draws Controversy

The incident of flag desecration led President Jordan to address the campus in an All-Student email.

On Nov. 12, four days after the election, the flag in front of the St. Mary’s Post Office was found torn, upside down, and flying at half mast. President Tuajuanda Jordan sent out an All-Student email that morning, emphasizing that the majority of St. Mary’s students respect the property and opinions of others but that, “unfortunately ‘majority’ does not translate to ‘all.’”

Ben Smith, a local resident and Navy veteran, discovered the desecrated flag before the post office opened at 9 am on Saturday morning. His Facebook post on the incident, which gathered 3,000 likes and 1,708 shares, stated, “As a Veteran, I can’t tell you how much it hurts to see someone disrespect a symbol of our nation that my military brothers and sisters have fought and died to protect.” He later shared an article from The Enterprise, which covers news in Southern Maryland, called, “Feds probe desecration of U.S. flag at post office,” captioning it, “Hope that those responsible are prosecuted to the fullest extent.” Upon discovering the flag, Smith reportedly removed the desecrated flag and then returned it after the Post Office opened, when he confirmed that it was, in fact, post office property.

Flag desecration, as determined in 1989 by the Supreme Court in Texas v. Johnson, is a form of protest protected under the first amendment, as reiterated in President Jordan’s email. “The desecration of the Flag, although appalling to many, is not a crime,” she said. “However,” she continued, “vandalism is a form of protest that we cannot tolerate in our community. Acts of destruction – against people and things – do not move communities forward.” The flag at the Post Office is federal property and therefore the desecration of the flag is considered a federal crime. According to The Enterprise, there is a criminal investigation being conducted by federal postal service inspectors.

Southern Maryland News Net interviewed postal service investigator Frank Schissler, who commented, “No charges have been filed at this time, and I don’t know if anyone will be charged.” Inside Higher Ed has also reported that the students responsible “are being referred to the campus judicial system.” Whether or not any discipline has been carried out is unclear.

Similar incidents have occurred at other universities in the wake of the election, including Hampshire College in Massachusetts. On Nov. 9, students lowered a flag on campus to half mast, while the Hampshire College administration allowed them to remain that way as they discussed the meaning of the flag in relation to the election. The flag was later burned, then replaced by the college, and then taken down. Conflict ensued among veterans insulted by the flag’s removal and students protesting harmful rhetoric used during the election.

In the case of Brown University, small Veteran’s Day flags that had been distributed across the campus were snapped and taken out of the ground, inciting controversy among election protesters and veterans who heard about or witnessed the event.

Flag desecration as a form of protest against president-elect Donald Trump has extended to campuses across the US, including American University, the University of Missouri at Columbia, and Occidental College. However, out of these, the only incident involving federal property has occurred at the St. Mary’s Post Office, drawing criticism of the protest as an act of vandalism.