The continuing saga concerning the proper use of the land at the nation’s largest Veteran’s Administration campus took another turn on Tuesday, March 15, when the leader of two years of Sunday afternoon protests filed suit against VA officials, claiming that they violated his constitutional rights “based on the content of his expression and viewpoint he espouses.”
The controversy involves not only the proper use of the VA land in West Los Angeles, but also the proper treatment of the American flag, which the protesters have been hanging upside down in front of the VA grounds.
Robert Rosebrock, a 67-year-old Army veteran, has been leading protests at the corner of Wilshire and San Vicente Boulevards every Sunday since March 9, 2008. His group objects to the use of the VA property for non-veteran-related purposes, in particular an August 2007 Sharing Agreement between the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the nonprofit Veterans Park Conservancy for the use of 16 acres of VA land adjoining that intersection as a park to “serve the needs of veterans and residents alike.” [Santa Monica Mirror, January 1-7, 2009]
The protesters marked their 100th consecutive Sunday last month on February 21, announced a grand plan for the VA land to include housing for homeless veterans instead of a public park on the Wilshire/San Vicente corner, and promised more positive initiatives in support of their position. At the following Sunday protest on February 28, VA police physically removed an American flag that had been hung upside down after Rosebrock refused to remove it himself.
The controversy concerning the flag had been brewing for some time. The protesters hung a flag on the VA fence from the beginning of their protests in March 2008. Beginning in mid-2009, the protesters began hanging the flag with the union (the blue field with stars) down as a distress call. Rosebrock was then cited several times by the VA under a regulation which “criminalizes the distribution of materials or displaying of placards or posting materials on VA property” except as specifically authorized by the VA, according to Rosebrock’s suit filed March 16.
The citations against Rosebrock were all dismissed in December 2009 at the request of the U.S. Attorney’s office, but the flag-hanging dispute lingered. A VA official had written Rosebrock that hanging the flag upside down “is considered a desecration of the flag and is not allowed on VA property.” Rosebrock had countered that it was a legally recognized distress signal, and that was his message. So when the VA police struck the distress signal on February 28, Rosebrock took the positive initiative of filing suit.
Rosebrock’s free speech lawsuit was filed by the ACLU of Southern California against Donna Beiter, director of the VA West Los Angeles facility, and Ronald Mathis, chief of the VA police at that facility, each in their official capacity. “The VA has shown a basic misunderstanding of the meaning of the First Amendment of the Constitution, the very document that Mr. Rosebrock and other veterans have served in the military to protect,” said ACLU managing attorney Peter Eliasberg.
Beiter’s office declined to comment on the suit and referred all inquiries to a VA official in Washington, D.C., who did not return a telephone call before press time.
Rosebrock announced the filing of his lawsuit at a March 16 press conference, on the sidewalk where the protests have taken place, in front of the locked VA gates behind which lies the land in question. In a black U.S. Army sweatshirt with an American flag pin worn upside down below the neck, he pledged to “continue to hang the flag in distress because this property is in danger.”
Eliasberg, the ACLU lawyer, said that the VA is “really hanging the constitution upside down” by purporting to tell Rosebrock how he can express his opinion and how he cannot.