KINGSPORT, Tenn. (WJHL) — Profanity-ridden flags and signs have been recently seen outside Kingsport homes, causing concern among some residents.
City officials tell News Channel 11 they are aware of what they call “arguably objectionable materials” being displayed outside of homes in the city. But due to First Amendment rights, the city says it cannot take any action.
City officials have confirmed to News Channel 11 they’ve received a number of complaints about a house in Kingsport, which is draped in multiple political flags containing swear words.
Disagreeing with the profanity on the flags, and displeased with the city’s response – one Kingsport woman has made signs of her own to display at her house.
A passerby in the neighborhood may wonder, why did Connie Grandelli put signs on her front porch containing giant red letters that spell out a four-letter swear word that starts with F?
“This goes so against my grain. But I didn’t know what else to do,” Grandelli said.
Speaking with News Channel 11 in her front yard on Thursday, Grandelli described her signs as a “spotlight.”
She put up her display on Wednesday, knowing her house and the signs are highly visible to onlookers from across the river. Grandelli even made flyers explaining her reasoning to neighbors.
The Kingsport resident says her display is a response to flags hung up at the other house in town. Grandelli drives past it when picking up her granddaughter from daycare.
She objects to the other house’s multiple flags with swear words, some of which curse out President Joe Biden. Grandelli believes children should not have to see them, and says it’s the profanity, not the politics, that caused her to contact both Kingsport police and zoning enforcement in recent weeks, issuing a request.
“That the city would step in to remove signs of a profane nature,” she said.
Grandelli said she was told nothing could be done.
News Channel 11 reached out to the city as well. A Kingsport spokesperson sent a statement saying the city attorney analyzed applicable law, but determined the speech on private property was protected by the First Amendment:
The City of Kingsport is aware of arguably objectionable materials being displayed at residences within the city, as well as other similar displays popping up throughout Northeast Tennessee. In an effort to be responsive to citizens’ concerns, the office of the city attorney and other staff analyzed applicable law, including our City Code of Ordinances.
Based on this analysis, the city determined that it lacks any available means to address the materials that gave rise to complaints from citizens. As I’m sure you’re aware, speech protected by the First Amendment is broad in both nature and scope. Restrictions may only be imposed upon obscene speech (that is, speech which appeals to the prurient interest), speech that is inherently likely to result in a violent reaction as employed in a personally provocative fashion, or restrictions based solely upon time, place, and manner of speech.
The city has only received concerns relative to materials on private property, and these materials do not satisfy the legal definition of obscenity or speech inherently likely to result in a violent reaction. Moreover, no time, place and manner restrictions exist to address the concerns raised by citizens.
Bottom line—yes, city officials are aware, but the city attorney has determined that this speech is protected by the First Amendment.
Grandelli is also a realtor. She says the other house is dragging down the property value of neighbors, and making it difficult for her to do business in that neighborhood.
“This is affecting people’s livelihoods. It’s so much more than just your freedom of speech. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should,” she said.
Grandelli’s flyers posted on her mailbox ask her neighbors to call Kingsport City Hall, zoning enforcement, and the police department’s non-emergency line.
“Maybe if they receive enough phone calls, they will do something about it,” she wrote on the flyers.
Stewart Harris, a constitutional law professor at Lincoln Memorial University, sees the message on the house’s flags as protected. He pointed to a Supreme Court precedent set by Cohen v. California in 1971.
“I’ll paraphrase here, I think the Court said, you know, ‘One person’s obscenity is another person’s lyric.’ And so the f-word was protected in that particular case. And it is protected now. And so I think Kingsport got it right,” he said.
Harris said further, “The Constitution doesn’t require us to act wisely or politely. It simply defines the limits of government power to stop us from doing things like this. And in this case, the government has no such power.”
Grandelli is still determined to defend her views with her temporary display. She told News Channel 11 she planned to soon take it down, once her message was heard.
“I feel really bad. Somebody’s like, ‘You just put it on your house.’ I’m like, ‘I know, I hate it. It makes me feel horrible,'” she said. “And yes it’s coming down very quickly. Because I don’t want to add to the problem. I just want to bring light to the problem.”
Grandelli said she did not know who lived in the other house with the flags. News Channel 11 has contacted an individual living there for their response, and will provide updates as they become available.