Michelle Manhart, a former Air Force Staff Sergeant, made national news last week and even became something of a folk hero when she either rescued or stole — depending on one’s point of view — an American flag from a group of protesters who had placed it on the ground and walked across it.
Her efforts got her into an altercation with police, when she “lost it” after cops insisted that she hand the flag back to the protesters —though ultimately no charges were pressed. Manhart was banned from the campus of Valdosta State University in Georgia, however.
The protesters, who were African-American, were apparently using their symbolic walking on the flag to protest racial inequality in the United States.
“I was just going over there to pick up the flag off the ground. I don’t know what their cause is, but I went to pick it up because it doesn’t deserve to be on the ground,” Manhart said.
Particularly among conservative political commentators, Manhart drew widespread praise. Conservative website Eagle Rising described her action as “a valiant display of patriotism,” and condemned the protesters as “a bunch of young university punks.”
Her self-admitted resistance to the police, who ended up slapping handcuffs on her, was lauded as “guarding the flag until she was overpowered by police and arrested.”
But Manhart’s commitment to the dignity of the flag has not always been quite as passionate.
Just eight years ago, Manhart herself posed for a widely published photograph with a flag dragging on the ground, in apparent violation of the United States code that governs how flags must be handled. In fact, she also apparently violated another section of the code as well — because in the photo, which appeared in Playboy magazine, Manhart posed nude, covering herself only in the flag.
The fallout from her nude pictorial ultimately resulted in Manhart resigning from the Air Force rather than face discipline.
But later in 2007, Manhart posed nude again with the American flag, as part of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) “I’d Rather Go Naked Than Wear Fur” campaign.
This time, Manhart used two small American flags to cover her otherwise exposed breasts.
The U.S. Code clearly states, “The flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery. It should never be festooned, drawn back, nor up, in folds, but always allowed to fall free.”
However, courts have ruled that the Constitutional First Amendment right to free expression takes precedence over the rules against mishandling the flag, such as using it as wearing apparel or placing it on the ground.
In other words, the university protesters right to trample the flag was protected by the Constitution, just as was the right of Michelle Manhart to pose nude with the flag — twice.
[Image via Twitter]