esmond is an artist, author, and retired school-teacher from Fresno, California. In September, 2015, he submitted a painting to the annual Big Fresno Fair for display in its competitive art show. Soon after, fair officials telephoned Desmond to tell him that while his painting could be judged in the art competition (and was eligible for a prize), it could not be displayed to the public.
That’s because Desmond’s painting, The Attack, depicted a scene from the Atlanta Campaign in 1864 in which one of the soldiers is carrying the Second National Flag of the Confederacy: a white flag with a small St. Andrews Cross in one corner. According to Fresno and California state fair officials, a recently enacted California statute barred the display of the Confederate flag on state property.
“The Attack” by Tim Desmond
Section 8195 of the California Code provides that, “The State of California may not sell or display the Battle Flag of the Confederacy, also referred to as the Stars and Bars, or any similar image, or tangible personal property, inscribed with such an image unless the image appears in a book, digital medium, or state museum that serves an educational or historical purpose.”
In an op-ed explaining the law, the bill’s sponsor, Isadore Hall III, wrote, “the Confederate Flag is a symbol of hate and should not be promoted or perpetuated by any element of American government.”
Regardless of one’s particular view of what display of the Confederate flag means, the circumstances of the Big Fresno art show make it clear that the views expressed in his painting were Desmond’s — not anyone else’s and certainly not those of the state. In organizing an art show, the state is creating an opportunity for individuals to express different points of view about the subjects depicted in paintings, even controversial subjects about which people disagree.
Officials did not dispute the fact that, in every other respect, Desmond’s painting qualified for inclusion in the show. Unfortunately, though, the statute tied their hands: though educational and historical, Desmond’s painting could not be shown to the public.
Desmond’s case illustrates the pitfalls of trying to draft prohibitions against particular viewpoints that are offensive to many. Tim Desmond’s case isn’t the only instance where the statute seems to forbid even historic or educational depictions of the Confederate flag. For instance, a professor at a California state university could not display the actual Confederate flag, or any physical painting or photograph of it during a lecture about the Civil War. Nor could a California social studies or government professor display the campaign buttons produced in support of presidential candidates, some of which a include a Confederate flag.