Unless that symbol is now associated with a political group, that is.
At least two vehicles operated by the Summerville Police Department were reported to bear “Don’t Tread On Me” vanity plates on their front bumpers.
This Gadsen Flag image was once waved by the Continental Marine Corps in the Revolutionary War, but today is a symbol of the Tea Party movement, a group that promotes conservative and libertarian government policies.
However, its application upon those public vehicles actually violates two terms of the South Carolina Code of Laws – sections 8-13-765 and 8-13-1346 – which state no government property or public equipment can be used in any political manner.
The use of the “Don’t Tread On Me” Gadsen flag constitutes such violations, according to Cathy Hazelwood, General Counsel of the State Ethics Commission, because of its association with the political group.
The only exception would be if the same car also bore symbols of contrasting political causes, Hazelwood says. “If the municipality allows this logo, then any other political movement should have its logo on the vehicle,” says Hazelwood, who offers “a Tea Party logo on one side and a MoveOn on the other” as hypothetical example.
SPD’s K-9 Unit vehicle 180 bears the “Don’t Tread On Me” image on its front bumper (see photo); a regular patrol vehicle with the same Tea Party symbol was seen by two witnesses over the weekend. Pierce says vehicle 180 is currently not in use.
City officers are allowed to display personal plates of choice on front bumpers of their assigned vehicles, according to Pierce. These particular plates were placed on SPD cars before creation of the Tea Party movement, he believes.
Pierce also states the "Don't Tread On Me" image is just one of four military icons used by Tea Party activists, to his knowledge. Another flag - the old Navy Jack, which carried the same four-word text with a different snake image - is one other example, he offers.
Although he said he would discuss the circumstance with police Chief Bruce Owens, Pierce did not reply to messages requesting follow-up. Other SPD command staff declined to answer questions on the subject, deferring to Pierce.
While not a registered political party in South Carolina, the Tea Party informally merged with the state’s GOP in 2010. Karen Floyd, then chair of SCGOP, said the goal was to create liaisons and merge goals between their similar organizations.
Some Republican congresspersons have personally displayed the “Don’t Tread On Me” flag at particular public events, and the Tea Party is now an actual registered political party in Florida.
In two incidents last year, one in Rhode Island and another in Connecticut, the Gadsen Flag was blocked from display on public buildings. The flag’s association with, and use by, the Tea Party was the basis for its removal in both cases.