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Battle flag display revives racial discord at Hernando County public works

BROOKSVILLE — One day last month, Luke Sanders finished his shift at the county public works compound on E Jefferson Street and headed to his truck in the parking lot.

What Sanders saw stopped him cold.

What appeared to be a large Confederate flag was hanging inside a co-worker's Jeep parked behind Sanders' truck. Propped up on the front dashboard sat a license plate version of the same flag.

"It was just total disgust," Sanders, recalling his reaction, told the Times last week.

Sanders, who is black, and the Jeep's owner, Baron Wood, have a history of racially tinged discord.

Wood, who is white, was disciplined in 2010 after a county investigation found he referred to Sanders as "boy." Last October, the two men got into a fight in an office of the public works building. Sanders claimed Wood called him a racial slur. Police determined Sanders was the aggressor and charged him with two counts of misdemeanor battery. Both men were suspended without pay for one week for having a physical altercation in the workplace and warned that further incidents could lead to their termination.

That history prompted supervisors to suspend Wood for one day without pay. Wood had used the flags as tools of harassment, county officials decided, and violated the county's policy on harassment and discrimination in the workplace.

The incident marks another flare-up of the simmering tension between the two employees. Sanders currently has a pending complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging the county has failed to take action to ease the hostile work environment.

But Wood's discipline also demonstrates the power of an employer to abridge free-speech rights of employees — in this case, the right to display a powerfully divisive symbol often seen waving in Hernando County yards, plastered on bumper stickers, even on the city of Brooksville's official seal.

• • •

Sanders says he's convinced that Wood parked his Jeep to display the flags because of a complaint Sanders made to a supervisor the previous day.

Another public works employee wears several pins on his cap, including a Confederate flag. Sanders told assistant public works director Steve Whitaker that he found the flag offensive.

That got back to Wood, Sanders said. Administrative services director Cheryl Marsden said Wood acknowledged that he'd heard from co-workers about Sanders' complaint.

On Wood's discipline form, Marsden included a warning:

"If you display these types of materials that are considered demeaning, insulting, intimidating or sexually aggressive in the workplace in the future, you will receive additional discipline up to and including termination."

Wood could not be reached for comment for this story. In the section for the employee's response on his discipline form, he wrote two sentences: "I do not agree with this at all. I have not done anything wrong."

According to Marsden, Wood said the flag that appeared to hang inside his Jeep was actually a mesh bimini top.

In a five-page letter to supervisors, Wood claimed that Sanders continues to harass and taunt him with comments and lewd gestures. Marsden told the Times that there were no witnesses to substantiate those claims, but Sanders was given a verbal warning, reminding him to steer clear of Wood. Sanders said the allegations in Wood's letter are untrue.

In an interview with the Times in December, Wood denied using a racial slur.

"I'm far from being racist, I'll tell you that right now," Wood said. "The problem lies with Luke Sanders. He's the one that's racist. He's had problems with a lot of people, and he's dealt the race card lots of times, and he threw it at me."

Citing Sanders' pending EEOC complaint, assistant county attorney Jon Jouben declined to comment specifically on Wood's case and the decision to discipline him for displaying the flag. In general, Jouben said, "All First Amendment issues related to the public workplace are contextual, and the county as the employer gets to interpret those contextual elements."

That means the county can limit a worker's free-speech rights on county property if officials determine it's in the best interest of safety and harmony.

Attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida agree, said spokesman Derek Newton.

"Free speech is important and heavily protected, but it is not absolute," Newton said. "When speech becomes harassment or creates a hostile work environment, the employer cannot only restrict speech, it may be obligated to do so."

When the employer is the government, Newton noted, it has a far higher burden than a private company to prove grounds for abridging speech rights. The final call made by a supervisor is typically bolstered by evidence, but still has an element of subjectivity, Newton said. If a worker feels an employer has overreached, there are legal remedies available.

The action of the employer must be limited to each case. That's why an outright ban on the display of Confederate flags by county employees would almost certainly fail to pass legal muster.

"Harassment is prohibited across the board, and that's what should be addressed, not developing a policy to limit free-speech rights," Newton said.

• • •

Paul Douglas, past president of the Hernando County Branch of the NAACP, has been following Sanders' case closely and visited the public works compound last month to see Wood's Jeep and the flags for himself.

Given the history between the two workers and the feelings the flag evokes among African-Americans, the county made the right call, punishing Wood for displaying it in such proximity to Sanders' truck, Douglas said.

"That act," he said, "is like waving a red flag in front of a bull."

Douglas said he understands that many Southerners consider the flag a fundamental part of their heritage.

"Others are saying it's part of our heritage, too, and it's a terrible heritage," Douglas said. "Black folks in the South were subjected to all kind of brutalities in the name of that flag."

Only a small minority fly the flag today with bigoted intentions, said Doug Davis, past commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans Camp 1437 in Brooksville.

"If I take it to be offensive, and it's not meant to be offensive, then I have the problem," Davis said.

Douglas and Davis agree on one point, though. Given the county's checkered history with race relations, supervisors have much work to do to foster harmony among their workers.

"The county has to do many decades of playing catch-up," Davis said.

• • •

In 2008, a county utilities worker named Jason Booker stepped forward with allegations that he had faced continuing discrimination as he worked on a utilities crew.

Booker said one worker told him to "go back to Africa'' and another showed him a noose, among other incidents. A second staffer also came forward but later left the county. Booker filed an EEOC complaint, and ultimately reached a settlement that cost the county's insurance carrier $125,000.

All county employees were required to go through harassment awareness classes, a provision the EEOC requires the county to continue annually.

After the fight last year between Wood and Sanders, Wood was required to attend one-on-one diversity training, and the trainer came to the Public Works Department to give group sessions for all employees.

Sanders, who had a clean criminal record, pleaded no contest to the battery charges, did 100 hours of community service and attended anger management classes.

He recently rejected a settlement offer by the county to resolve his EEOC complaint. Declining to discuss specifics of the offer, Sanders said he would voluntarily resign and drop his complaint if the county offers him a fair amount that would give him enough to live on while he looks for a new job.

"I will leave in a minute," he said, "but I'm stuck in the situation."

Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or tmarrero@tampabay.com.

Battle flag display revives racial discord at Hernando County public works 06/02/12 [Last modified: Saturday, June 2, 2012 12:52pm]
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