Treatment of U.S. flag sparks protest at Georgia's Valdosta State University

Reuters News
Posted: Apr 24, 2015 12:11 PM

By Rich McKay

ATLANTA (Reuters) - A university in southern Georgia canceled classes on Friday before a rally that drew about 1,000 demonstrators angry that an American flag was stepped on during a recent protest on campus.

Valdosta State University officials said no classes would be held and about 100 law enforcement officers were on campus during the event to ensure the safety of students and staff.

The university, located about 15 miles from the Florida border, has drawn national attention after a cell phone video of an altercation at the April 17 rally was posted on the Internet.

"This is a home for free speech," said William McKinney, the university's president, at a news conference after the event, noting his pride that it had taken place peacefully. "This is what America is about, what it should be about."

The video shows demonstrators walking on a U.S. flag lying on the ground. A woman named Michelle Manhart, an Air Force veteran living in the area, is seen taking the flag from the protesters to protect it.

Manhart refused to return the flag, even after being ordered to do so by police. She was eventually detained by officers and has been banned from the campus, according to local media reports.

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One of the protesters said in a subsequent YouTube video that he was demonstrating against racism and white supremacy.

Flag defenders had been critical of the school president's response that freedom of speech must be upheld even if it includes disrespect to the flag.

Critics launched their own protest movement called "Flags over VSU."

"We will not waiver in standing up for our nation, our flag and our soldiers," says a message on the Facebook page.

(Editing by Colleen Jenkins, Letitia Stein and Lisa Lambert)