There is a litany of historical moments when the Confederate battle flag has been used to intimidate and harass people of color, Carrboro resident Maya Little said.
The flag became popular in the 1950s and 1960s as white segregationists violently attacked civil-rights activists and black people who stood up for their rights, she said. Racist lawmakers used it as a symbol of white supremacy, and neo-Nazis carried it as they marched in Charlottesville last year.
"This flag has nothing to do with Southern culture or heritage, and frankly, Southern culture deserves better than it," said Little, a UNC-Chapel Hill teaching assistant and an organizer of the Silent Sam sit-in that opposes the Confederate monument on the university's campus.
The Orange County Board of Commissioners agreed Tuesday with Little and others who asked them to limit the size of flags flying on private or public property.
No one spoke in defense of the Confederate flag or against creating new rules.
"I'm sorry that people aren’t here to defend their decision to want to display the Confederate flag, because even though I might not agree with them, we're never going to move forward together unless we have the conversation," Commissioner Barry Jacobs said.
Commissioner Renee Price suggested the commissioners join a public conversation about the issue. Staff will ask the county's Human Relations Commission to host the event.
Meanwhile, the county's Planning Board will review the proposed rule changes April 4. The commissioners could hold a public hearing and possibly vote May 1.
"I think we’re making a step in right direction with the limitations … on the size of these symbols," Price said, "but I think that the public should understand — just as we heard from those of you who had the courage to come up here and speak — that the Confederate flag is offensive, and as much as people try to say that it is their heritage, it is offensive to many, many people."
County Attorney John Roberts urged the commissioners to approach the issue carefully. Rules that address the content of a flag or single out a particular flag could lead to a lawsuit.
"It must be limited to time, place, manner, what lot can have a flag, what size a flag may be and how high a flagpole may be," Roberts said. "Those are content-neutral and would need to be applied to all flags regardless of what a flag is displaying."
A change would not immediately affect existing flags, Roberts said, but those flags would have to comply with the rules later.
There is legal precedence, including a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Reed vs. Town of Gilbert, when the justices backed a church claiming local sign rules violated its free speech rights. The justices ruled the town was wrong to treat signs differently because of their content, while identifying a number of content-neutral rules that might be constitutional.
Closer to home, the city of Durham cited both a Bob Evans restaurant and American Legion Post 7 in the late 1990s for raising large flags. Post 7 sued the city, but lost in a federal appeals court in 2001.
The Burke County Manager's Office in western North Carolina got a different response this month after writing to Gov. Roy Cooper about a large Confederate flag on private land near Interstate 40. The North Carolina Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans raised the flag as part of its campaign to post 100 flags across the state.
The N.C. Department of Transportation district engineer who responded to Burke County's letter said the flag is not a sign or an advertisement, and therefore is not regulated by the state's Outdoor Advertising Act.
The Southern heritage group ACTBAC (Alamance County Taking Back Alamance County) has said it plans to raise a flag in Orange County in response to the Orange County Schools banning the Confederate flag and symbols, Hillsborough removing the words “Confederate memorial” from the Orange County Historical Museum, and ongoing efforts to remove Silent Sam, UNC's Confederate statue, from the university's McCorkle Place quad.
The plan prompted residents to ask the commissioners in February to clarify the county's flag rules.
ACTBAC founder Gary Williamson has said they are looking at multiple Orange County sites., including N.C. 54 West, Interstate 40, Interstate 85, and on U.S. 70 near Hillsborough, where the landowner has a permit for a 60-foot flagpole and has installed a foundation sleeve.
People who want to raise a giant Confederate flag while posting online that it's meant to intimidate people don't reflect the county where she grew up, Orange County native Hillary MacKenzie said.
The county should be a place where people can disagree but still respect each other, MacKenzie said, and where people are willing to stand with their neighbors.
"I can support your right to fly a Confederate symbol on your private property, but the size and message that come with this flag are something else entirely," MacKenzie said. "In fact, any sign of this scale on private property doesn’t seem in keeping with the small-town values that I was raised with here."