Southern heritage advocates and a legal group have come to the defense of a Florida man who says he was told by an Orlando public utility he could not park his pick-up truck in its parking lot because the truck had a Confederate flag license plate.
Officials with the Orlando Utilities Commission reportedly told Randy Jones, a former OUC employee of 28 years and now a subcontractor for a private firm doing business with OUC, that he had to either remove the plate, cover it up or park his truck across the street. If he failed to take any of those steps, reports said, OUC officials threatened to have his truck towed.
“We simply will not tolerate any distraction from our overriding mission to serve the public and to provide our employees with a work environment free from harassment,” OUC officials said in a statement released last week, according to an online article published by WKMG-TV news in Orlando.
The utility claimed its decision was prompted by complaints from some employees that the flag plate was offensive.
The warning, however, has prompted outrage from Southern supporters and legal groups who have vowed to come to Jones’ defense. The former OUC employee has hired a lawyer to fight the utility’s decision because, he says, it is a violation of his First Amendment right to freedom of expression and speech.
“Jones has had the Confederate flag plate on the front of his pick-up truck for 13 years. It was a Father’s Day gift from his son,” said Ron Holland, editor of the Dixie Daily News. “Southerners are outraged about this attack on Southern heritage, free speech and the First Amendment.”
“We’re behind this case a thousand percent,” added Kirk Lyons, a spokesman for the Southern Legal Resource Center.
Lyons told WorldNetDaily Jones has not formally approached his organization for representation, but said he telephoned Jones’ attorney, Steve Mason, and offered the group’s help and resources “if needed.”
Mason did not return phone calls by press time.
Lyons said he believed OUC’s decision would come under the legal distinction of acting on behalf of a state agency – because it falls under some regulatory control by the state – and therefore subject to First Amendment prohibitions. If OUC were a private business, Lyons hinted that the issue may be harder to press in court.
“These are state actors, a government entity,” Lyons said. “So they can’t do this. They can’t pick and choose which license plates come on their property or not.”
“This is a state actor telling a private firm’s employee that he can’t come on” the lot, he added. “And we feel that is still state action, though technically you’ve got a private employer right in the middle.”
Florida regulatory officials said the state has no role in deciding what operating policies can be adopted by local utilities.
“We have very limited regulatory authority over municipal utilities,” Barry Ray, a regulatory consultant for the Florida Public Service Commission told WND. The FPSC oversees the Orlando power company and other investor-owned utilities in the state.
“Our role has mostly to do with safety oversight,” Ray said.
Officials with OUC did not return phone calls seeking comment on the case.