Keystone RV Co. found itself in an awkward position recently when an employee made outward expressions of his patriotism and pride in his Southern heritage in ways that some felt probably went too far.
The issue arose last week when Larry Falin was ordered to remove a couple of flags from his pickup at Keystone RV Co. in Goshen, Ind., according to the South Bend (Ind.) Tribune.
Falin said he had two flags on his black 1983 Chevy truck. On the driver’s side he had a large U.S. flag with an eagle superimposed on the stars. It carried the words “America: Love It or Leave It.”
Screwed onto the tailgate was a Confederate flag bearing the slogan “The South Will Rise Again” and a rendering of a skull and crossbones.
On the passenger side of the truck was a skull stuck on a stick.
The altered U.S. flag was 5 feet by 2 1/2 feet, and it was stuck on a pole fashioned from a pool cue and a snow shovel handle, Falin said. It was the biggest of his decorations, and it rose above the others.
Falin, who has been a laminator at Keystone for more than three years, said he flew the Stars and Stripes to show support for the troops overseas. The Stars and Bars represented his native state of West Virginia.
“That’s part of my heritage,” he told The Tribune.
The skull represented Saddam Hussein, he said.
Falin said he got positive comments about the flags everywhere he went. Everywhere, that is, except at Keystone RV.
“I had to go directly out there and strip my truck down,” Falin said.
Ron Fenech, Keystone’s president, said the bottom line was that Falin’s decorations were making some employees uncomfortable. That’s why Falin was asked to remove them.
“Typically, we would not even go there, except when you’re defacing an American flag. That really crosses the line,” Fenech said.
“It really hurt me that I had to pull the American flag off my truck,” Falin said.
The rebel flag was an even bigger problem.
A supervisor “assumed it was a KKK thing,’” said Falin, who told the newspaper that he does not sympathize with the Ku Klux Klan or similar groups.
Not only was he ordered to take the flags off his truck, he said, but he was written up for the incident. A report was placed in his personnel file.
The Tribune interviewed two attorneys and a business law professor who said the First Amendment prevents government interference with free speech, but doesn’t prohibit an employer from restricting an employee’s right to speak.
One attorney said an employer can regulate the decorations on an employee’s truck both while it is parked on company property and when it is elsewhere in the community.
A second attorney and a law professor told the Tribune employers have a tougher time regulating employee behavior during off hours when they are not on company property, but they could include language in their employee handbook about the worker not embarrassing the company on or off the job.
Falin said he values his job at Keystone, so he went along with everything the company asked of him, even though it hurt him to remove the flags.
“The message I would want to get through,’” said Fenech, “is that we have respect for all of our employees. We want an environment where everyone feels comfortable.”
The company president said Keystone would welcome a display of American flags on the vehicles of its employees as long as they are not defaced.