Denham Springs, ACLU trade slaps on ‘bird’ display

A holiday light display showing an extended middle finger kept on sparking discord Wednesday even though Sarah Henderson removed the decoration from her roof Monday after a visit from police.

Responding to an American Civil Liberties Union letter complaining about pressure applied by city police, City Attorney Paeton Burkett fired back an email Wednesday.

“I would hate to see this lady re-erect such a display, which causes her such conflict with her neighbors,” Burkett says in the email to the ACLU. “No one wants to be ‘that’ person in a neighborhood.

“In my opinion these actions could cause continuing embarrassment to Ms. Henderson, her friends and family,” Burkett says in the email.

“I would think that sometimes you have to appeal to someone’s moral compass and hope they do the right thing, even if it isn’t illegal per se,” Burkett’s email says.

That brought a terse reply from Marjorie R. Esman, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana.

“I find your email astonishing,” Esman says to Burkett. “As the city attorney for Denham Springs, it is your job to advise them on the law, not to impose your values on what you would like the law to be.

“My job is to defend the Constitution for all of the people of Louisiana,” Esman says. “The First Amendment is not about what you, or Ms. Henderson’s neighbors, consider to be in good taste.

“Indeed, in a free country it is impermissible for law enforcement to impose standards of taste or majoritarian preferences on those in the minority,” Esman says. “Those are the tactics of a police state, not a free democracy.”

The ACLU reply continues: “I would expect you to enforce the laws, not your own personal preferences. It is up to Ms. Henderson to decide whether she wants to be ‘that’ person in her neighborhood and whether or not she will be embarrassed. The law does not allow the City of Denham Springs to make that decision for her.”

As of late Wednesday afternoon, Henderson said, she hadn’t made a decision on exactly what she will do next.

She hadn’t re-erected the middle-finger display, which she said she initially put up as a comment to neighbors with whom she has had a yearlong disagreement.

Henderson said an ACLU attorney she spoke with Wednesday told her the organization could protect her as far as fighting a citation.

“I’ve thought about it a lot,” Henderson said. “I got my point across.”

She said at the moment, she isn’t inclined to put the lighted finger image back on her roof.

“I am going to put something else up,” Henderson said. “It’s going to be so scrutinized, so it has to be the right thing.”