DENHAM SPRINGS — The American Civil Liberties Union weighed in Tuesday on the side of a woman whose holiday lights in the shape of an extended middle finger upset neighbors.
Sarah Henderson took the lights down from the roof of her house Monday after a visit from Denham Springs police prompted by neighborhood complaints, but she said Tuesday evening she is considering putting them back up after getting support from the ACLU.
“I hope the lady would be a good neighbor,” Denham Springs Police Chief Scott Jones said.
If Henderson puts the lights back up, Jones said, he will see if there is a city ordinance, such as the one on obscenity, that applies.
“A threatening letter from the ACLU doesn’t mean anything to me,” the police chief said. “I don’t give them any consideration at all.”
But he said he won’t put the city in legal jeopardy.
“If there is nothing we can do legally, there is nothing we can do,” he said.
If Henderson puts the symbol back up, Jones said, he would consult with the city attorney.
“I’d have to look at all of the ordinances” before providing advice on the next step, City Attorney Paeton Burkett said Tuesday.
Burkett said she did discuss the matter with police officials Monday after the Mayor’s Office received the complaints, and an officer went to see if Henderson would remove the lights “in the spirit of Christmas” and neighborhood harmony.
Henderson said she was told she could be fined if she didn’t remove the display.
“I wish now I had never taken it down,” Henderson said late Tuesday.
She said she hopes to talk to an ACLU lawyer and she might put the unique decoration back on her roof.
In an open letter to the police chief Tuesday, Marjorie R. Esman, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana, said Henderson has the right to display her holiday lights “as she sees fit, without interference from the city of Denham Springs.
“Rather than pressuring Ms. Henderson to remove a display that is protected under the U.S. Constitution and Louisiana law, the Denham Springs Police Department should have defended her right of free expression,” the letter states. “We therefore assume that should she choose to reinstall her display, she will receive appropriate police protection as the law requires.”
The letter cites court cases, including one from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal in New Orleans, that Esman says “specifically commented on the protected expressive nature of a middle finger extended in defiance or protest.”
Denham Springs Mayor Jimmy Durbin said that if Henderson puts the decoration back up he will ask the city attorney to research the matter “and see if what the ACLU said is correct.”