RUSKIN — Just as she had done for the past four years, Kathy Morgan sent in her application for a booth at Ruskin Seafood Festival, where she would sell strawberry shortcake.
To her surprise, the Ruskin Chamber of Commerce said no.
Morgan, a member of one of Florida's oldest farming families, said she thinks she was banned from participating because she decorated her booth last year with a Confederate flag.
The chamber maintains Morgan used abusive language when organizers asked her to remove the flag.
Now the Sons of Confederate Veterans are raising their voices and mulling a possible protest.
"I'm not a redneck or a troublemaker," Morgan said. "I'm just proud of my heritage."
The chamber denied Morgan's bid to set up her booth at this weekend's festival at E.G. Simmons Park. So she tried to buy a sponsorship. That would not have given her the right to have a booth, but she would have been listed on their program as a backer. But the chamber rejected that offer, too.
The battle lines were drawn after last year's festival, when Morgan initially refused to take down her Confederate flag.
Morgan, 54, said she has flown that flag in her booth at area festivals for years, including the one in Ruskin, along with a strawberry flag and the U.S. flag.
Last year's confrontation began at about 10 a.m. on the festival's opening day, she said. As Morgan was setting up Berrylicious, a chamber member approached the booth and told her the Confederate flag was disruptive, and asked her to take it down.
Morgan refused. About a half-hour later, a group of chamber members returned and again demanded that she take down the flag. Morgan said one man told her she would be forcibly removed by a sheriff's deputy unless she complied.
"It might have been said that if we come back in 30 minutes and it's not down, we'll get a sheriff's deputy," said Jim Johnson, who was among the group from the chamber.
Morgan remembers arguing forcefully. "I might have used the word 'bull----," she said.
"She used a little bit stronger language than that," Johnson said when asked to confirm Morgan's recollection.
Morgan did take the flag down, however, and sold her shortcake for the duration of the festival. But when she sent in her check to set up a booth this year, it was returned along with a letter. Someone else had already applied to set up a strawberry shortcake booth, and that person was a chamber member. Chamber members would get first choice, the letter said.
So Morgan e-mailed the chamber with a $250 credit card payment, asking to be listed as a sponsor. No one replied or answered repeated phone calls to the chamber.
Finally, chamber president Pat Warbritton called Morgan and told her that she would not be permitted to sponsor the festival either.
After last year's confrontation, the chamber board voted to bar Morgan's booth from the festival, and denying her a sponsorship was in keeping with that decision, she said.
"The flag was just one thing," Warbritton said. "It was also the behavior and the language when a couple of board members went up to her." Warbritton said that vendor guidelines call for a "seafood theme," and say the chamber can disallow offensive displays and remove vendors who fail to comply.
Morgan said she will set up her Berrylicious strawberry shortcake stand anyway in front of a friend's house, within one mile of the festival.
As for the flag and it's critics, Morgan said she doesn't understand how it could be interpreted as a symbol of oppression. To her, it evokes "skeeters, lightning bugs, riding horseback barefoot, making jelly with my granny. That's what it means to me.''
Word of the tiff quickly reached the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a group responsible for a huge Confederate flag near Interstates 4 and 75. There has been talk of a protest, but no one seems sure how much of one.
The group might have a "visual presence'' at the weekend's festival, said member Phil Waters, calling it a matter of free speech.
"We feel the civil rights movement has put many laws in place," he said. "It's working in our favor now. Discrimination is discrimination."
Once a group gets a permit for an event, as the Ruskin chamber acquires each year from Hillsborough County's Parks, Recreation and Conservation Department, that group may bar displays that run counter to the event, said Bruce Howie, a former vice president of the Pinellas American Civil Liberties Union.
"The argument is, 'This is not a public forum,' and the chamber that is currently in control of that area has the right to control their message and control any political speech within it," Howie said.
It's the same sort of license that allowed the Knights of Columbus to ban Gay Pride marchers in a parade, and allows Gay Pride organizers to bar anti-gay protesters from their events.
"On the one hand, that may sound like a suppression of free speech, but it's actually a promotion of free speech by allowing people to control their message," Howie said. "And next week it's somebody else's turn."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (813) 661-2431 or email@example.com.