Business

Fly your flag, but don’t bug the neighbors

DEAR MR. MYERS: I put a large American flag on my front lawn to mark Flag Day on June 14, and then left it up to celebrate the upcoming Independence Day. On June 19, I was issued a citation from our local sheriff’s department that ordered me to remove it because my flag “exceeds local limits.” Isn’t that a violation of my constitutional right of freedom of speech?

ANSWER: Maybe yes, but maybe no.

You probably can fly your U.S flag, as I do, on your front lawn or on a metal holder that’s screwed to an exterior wall. But you also must make sure that it conforms to local ordinances, most of which are designed to protect a neighborhood’s overall aesthetics, keep passersby from possible injury or both.

Because you were cited for having an oversized flag by the sheriff’s department, contact its headquarters to find out what restrictions are in place in your area. Such information can also usually be obtained from a homeowner’s local building or planning department, or a similar public agency.

Flag-flying rules for owners who live in a development that’s controlled by a homeowners association are a bit more complicated.

The federal “Freedom to Display the American Flag Act of 2005” makes it illegal for an HOA to prohibit an owner from displaying Old Glory. But it does allow the association to place “reasonable” restrictions on the time, place and manner of such displays, provided that the limitations are designed to benefit a substantial portion of the community’s other residents.

For example, an HOA can sometimes limit flag-flying to certain hours of the day if, say, a particularly large flag that flaps loudly in the wind may keep neighbors awake at night. They also typically can prevent homeowners from displaying a flag that obstructs another owner’s view.

REAL ESTATE TRIVIA: More than 100,000 U.S. flags are flown over the nation’s Capitol each year. That’s because the Capitol Flag Program allows any Congressional representative to ask for such a flag and then present it to a constituent who requested it.

DEAR MR. MYERS: A big shopping mall in a nearby county recently instituted a rule that states that minors cannot enter the mall on Friday and Saturday nights unless they are accompanied by an adult. Isn’t it unconstitutional for a developer or mall owner to discriminate against shoppers based solely on their age?

ANSWER: At least 105 of the roughly 1,222 malls across the U.S. have initiated some type of policy limiting access by minors, according to the nonprofit trade group International Council of Shopping Centers. It’s likely that even more malls will initiate similar restrictions until their constitutionality is decided, quite possibly by the U.S. Supreme Court several years from now.

Such limitations aren’t new: Owners of Minnesota’s Mall of America, the nation’s largest, started banning unaccompanied minors on Friday and Saturday evenings in the 1990s. But similar restrictions have been popping up at shopping centers from coast to coast at a rapid rate more recently, in part because some teenagers – often fueled by notices of mass gatherings through Instagram and other social media – flood malls on certain evenings and get into massive brawls or cause other types of trouble.

The hordes can scare away older customers and put a huge, expensive burden on local law-enforcement agencies and private security firms. Last December, when a big shopping center in northern California banned unaccompanied minors from the center’s day-after-Christmas sales event, it took 30 mall security guards and 50 Sacramento police officers to enforce it.

The American Civil Liberties Union and other opponents of such restrictions say that they’re unconstitutional. They argue that the limits illegally discriminate against an entire class of people – minors – and therefore should be tossed out by the courts.

“Malls should not be banning anyone based on blanket generalizations or stereotypes of how teens will behave,” said Michael T. Risher, a senior staff attorney in the ACLU’s Northern California office. “The fact that some minors may have, in the past, engaged in illegal conduct does not justify restricting the rights of all minors.”

DEAR MR. MYERS: I recently left the military after eight years of service. Now my husband and I would like to refinance the VA mortgage on our home and pull out some cash to add another bathroom and make some repairs. Will the Veterans Administration guarantee a cash-out refinance loan based on the equity that we have built up since we bought it, or will it refinance only the outstanding balance of our current mortgage?

ANSWER: The VA’s Cash-Out Refinance Loan program will let you refinance your house and pull out some money for just about any reason, including to make home improvements, pay off other debt or to fund a college education. It will cover up to 100 percent of your property’s current value.

Contact some local VA-approved lenders for details. Also call the VA itself at 800-827-1000 or visit its website, va.gov.

Thank you for doing your part to ensure that we’ll soon celebrate another year of freedom.

David W. Myers’ column is distributed by Cowles Syndicate Inc.

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