A federal court has ruled that the Veterans Administration (VA) violated the free speech rights of a veteran who protested the agency’s failure to use part of its property in west Los Angeles for the benefit and care of veterans, particularly those who are homeless.
The ACLU filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles in March 2010 on behalf of Robert Rosebrock. The 68-year-old Vietnam vet has protested the VA’s land-use policies every Sunday since 2008, along with other veterans. During the protests, Rosebrock often displays the American flag upside down on a fence outside VA property in west Los Angeles as a distress symbol to draw attention to the group’s cause. Police demanded that he remove the flag, and when Rosebrock refused, the police removed it themselves. Previously, VA police had allowed Rosebrock to display the flag right side up at the same site.
“Hanging the flag upside down was an important and necessary message for Mr. Rosebrock,” said Peter Eliasberg, ACLU/SC legal director. “He fought to defend the First Amendment, and the Court decided correctly that the very right he fought for was violated.”
For 66 weeks in a row, Rosebrock hung the flag right side up without any interference from the VA police. However, after he started hanging the flag upside down in June 2009, he was quickly cited six times for “unauthorized demonstration or service in a national cemetery or on other VA property.” Rosebrock also received an e-mail from Lynn Carrier, associate director of the Veterans Administration Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System, which said in part that he and his fellow demonstrators “may not attach the American flag, upside down, in VA property including our perimeter gates.”
The VA eventually dismissed the citations against Rosebrock, but the action of the VA police in removing a flag that Rosebrock had hung upside down made clear the agency’s unconstitutional policy of denying him his free speech rights.
The VA complex was specifically deeded to the United States in 1888 as a home for disabled veterans. Rosebrock and his fellow veterans demonstrated in front of a portion of the complex that the VA is planning to lease for use as a public park. Another portion of the land is now leased to a nearby private school for tennis courts, which veterans are not allowed to access.
Other buildings on the land are leased for use as theaters. Rosebrock was particularly incensed last year when the VA allowed a “celebrity carnival” to take place on the property, at a time when there are more than 6,500 homeless veterans in Los Angeles, including some who sleep on the sidewalk adjacent to the VA land that has been leased to build a public park.
“On this Memorial Day weekend, it’s good to know that the courts are recognize the right to free speech that veterans have fought and died to defend,” said Robert Rosebrock. “This land was deeded for the use and care of veterans and is being stolen away and leased to private, special interest groups with no transparency or accountability for the money generated. The Flag Code allows for the flag to be displayed upside down when property is in danger. It’s clear to us that this property is in danger, and has been for a long time.”