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California Dept. of Transportation: ‘Be Sure to Black Out the ‘United States’ and [the] Motto’

10:10 AM, Feb 20, 2013 • By JEFFREY H. ANDERSON
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For three years, a private citizen named Steve LeBard has led the effort to build a privately funded memorial in Orcutt, California—a tranquil small town located on the Golden State’s gorgeous Central Coast—to honor military veterans.  And for the better part of those three years, he has run into a toxic blend of political correctness, anti-Americanism, and bureaucratic senselessness.  Today, the memorial, which was to be built with private funds on a small piece of public land, remains unbuilt.

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LeBard is head of the private Old Town Orcutt Revitalization Association (OTORA), the type of voluntary civil association that Tocqueville said was the key to democratic civilization but which the central planners tend to view as getting in the way of their central planning and controlling.  At an official hearing on Tuesday, the California Department of Transportation (CalTrans) reiterated its refusal to allow LeBard to build the memorial because he wishes it to include the symbols or seals (depending upon the service) of the United States Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard (all of which have supported his efforts by giving him written permission for their use). 

CalTrans, it seems, regards certain aspects of the services’ symbols or seals as problematic.  For example, the Army’s permission letter to LeBard clearly states that its symbol “cannot be altered in any manner.”  But CalTrans wants it altered.  Specifically, CalTrans demands the removal of the motto “E Pluribus Unum” — which appears on our coins, has appeared on the Great Seal of the United States since the 18th century, and was first proposed as the motto for such a seal on July 4, 1776.  CalTrans also demands the removal of two other words — “United States.”  (This would leave just one word on the symbol:  “Army.”)  As CalTrans wrote to LeBard in advance of the hearing, “Be sure to black out the ‘United States’ and motto part of the seal.”

This is only the latest round of LeBard’s dealings with CalTrans, and a less determined citizen surely would have given up long ago.  Originally, LeBard and OTORA raised the money for the veterans’ memorial, and in 2011 he asked CalTrans for permission to build it by a park-and-ride near a highway on-ramp and off-ramp, where people enter and exit when traveling to and from nearby Vandenberg Air Force Base.  Because the memorial was to be built around an American flag, CalTrans refused to grant OTORA permission to build it. 

Citing its own interpretation of a decision issued by a 3-judge panel of the Ninth Federal Circuit Court of Appeals (and the policy that CalTrans developed in its aftermath), CalTrans declared that hanging an American flag on public land constitutes an impermissible act of “public expression.”  As CalTrans explained to LeBard at the time, if it allowed an American flag to be hung, “we would be placed in a position of having to permit all forms of expression….As such, the department has determined that the state highway system is not a forum for public expression….” 

LeBard subsequently did some digging and found that California law expressly declares, “The Flag of the United States of America and the Flag of the State of California may be displayed on a sidewalk located in or abutting on a state highway situated within a city….”  So CalTrans reluctantly allowed OTORA to put up a pole in the middle of the sidewalk and hang an American flag from there.  But that was the end of CalTrans’s magnanimity.  It told OTORA that it could not place the flagpole ten feet off of the sidewalk, leaving space for an armed forces memorial; could not expand the sidewalk enough to accommodate a memorial; and could not build a new, short sidewalk off of the main sidewalk, with the new sidewalk leading to a memorial.  CalTrans told OTORA it must, however, expand the sidewalk slightly — to accommodate the Americans with Disabilities Act.

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