Confederate Flags and Free Expression

There seems to be a great deal of confusion around the Confederate flag issue. I have seen more than a few people claiming that a state government removing the flag from public property somehow infringes on their personal right to free expression or that a business deciding to stop selling Confederate flag merchandise does the same. I'm writing this post in an effort to clarify a few of these misconceptions, as well as to make my own position as clear as possible.

Your right to free expression has nothing to do with what a business decides to sell (or not sell) or with what symbols a local, state, or federal government decides to promote. This does not necessarily mean that businesses should stop selling items with the Confederate flag on them or that governments should remove the flag; it only means that these decisions do not have anything to do with your right to free expression. I'll attempt to highlight the relevant distinctions below.

Your Right to Free Expression

Let's start with you. You have the right to free expression, and that means that I support your right to display a Confederate flag on your person (e.g., the airbrushed design on your t-shirt, the metal of your extra large belt buckle, your tattoos) or property (e.g., a large flag flying from the flag pole you erected on your land, the decal on back of your pickup truck). If you want to have the top of your vehicle painted to resemble the General Lee car from the Dukes of Hazzard, I'll support your right to do so. If you'd like to dress up like Col. Sanders and lead a parade through your town in celebration of the Confederate flag, I'll support your right to do so. I'll support your right to free expression not because I agree with what you have to say but because I believe that you must have the right to express ideas with which I disagree.

My support for your right to do all these things is not limited to the Confederate flag; it extends to any other symbol. Want to lounge around your home wearing a Klan hood? Go right ahead. I'll support your right to do that. Have an authentic WWII era Nazi flag you'd like to fly in front of your house instead of a Confederate flag? I'll support your right to do that too. All of this falls under your right to free expression, and as long as you are not breaking any laws, the fact that somebody else takes offense should not limit your freedom to express yourself as you desire. Others don't have to like it, and that is kind of the point.

Of course, you should know that my support of your right to free expression is not specific to you and the symbols you would like to promote. I'll also support the right of others to display symbols you might find offensive. And so, when someone wants to wear a t-shirt with slogans like "Jesus is a cunt" or "#killallmen," I'll support their right to do so too. Free expression is for everyone.

The Right of a Business to Sell What They Wish

As you are aware, some people have put pressure on some businesses to stop them from selling items with the Confederate flag on them. I find this unfortunate, as I think there are better ways to deal with bad ideas than attempting to prevent others from having access to them. So no, I do not support efforts to pressure businesses into no longer selling such items. Others can certainly opt to express themselves in this way, but I think they are mistaken to do so.

At the same time, I recognize that the decision to sell or not to sell certain items is one that individual businesses get to make. How they make these decisions has nothing to do with your rights. You do not have a right to buy something someone else does not want to sell. And so, Wal-Mart, Amazon.com, and other companies are free to stop selling whatever merchandise they wish. And you are free to complain when they do. You are also free to encourage other businesses to make such items available and to support them when they do.

So while I personally find this sort of thing to be unfortunate, I must recognize that it is a business decision and not one which I am entitled to make. I assume that various businesses have weighed the pros and cons of continuing to carry such merchandise and decided that it is in their interests not to do so. I am not happy with this decision, but it isn't mine to make.

Our Government

I do not think our local, state, and/or federal government should promote extremely divisive symbols such as the Confederate flag (or "In God We Trust"). Doing so alienates large numbers of people and communicates that the government is not really for everyone. Here's what Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS) recently said about Mississippi's state flag:

This flag is not just some piece of cloth that bears no importance; it is the physical manifestation of a time of hate, oppression and slavery that split this country at its seams. It also serves as a barrier around the entire state of Mississippi telling everyone else in this country that progress is not welcomed here.
I think he's correct. Granted, this is not what the flag communicates to everybody, but it does symbolize that to a great many people.

Our government is tasked with representing all of us, and it is not appropriate for them to promote one group's symbol in a manner that alienates others in such a manner. This is part of why secularism is so important (i.e., we expect our government to be neutral on matters of religion and not to promote one over others).

When a state decides to remove the Confederate flag or a monument from a government building or remove the Confederate flag from its own state flag, this has nothing to do with your right to free expression. You have the right to express yourself; you do not have the right to have our government promote your views at the expense of others.


To review:

  1. You have the right to free expression, and I support that right even when I find whatever you want to express objectionable (e.g., the Confederate flag).
  2. While you have the right to express yourself, you do not have the right to buy items from someone who does not want to sell them.
  3. Our government deciding to remove a divisive symbol has nothing whatsoever to do with your right to free expression.
I hope this clears things up a bit.

This post initially appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2015. With renewed interest in replacing the Mississippi state flag with something less offensive, it was edited to remove broken links and improve clarity in 2020.