VALDOSTA — An Air Force veteran and former Playboy model who was banned from Valdosta State University Friday after taking an American flag from a group of demonstrators is now organizing her own demonstration that she said is to show support for the military and the flag.
Michelle Manhart was detained but not charged by VSU police after she took the flag from a group of protesters. She said she was not planning to take the flag from the protesters, but she had heard about the group’s recent campus demonstrations and wanted to take action.
“I did not want anything like this, but I got a call from a student who told me that the flag was on the ground, and they were walking on it,” said Manhart. “I was just going over there to pick up the flag off the ground. I don’t know what their cause is, but I went to pick it up because it doesn’t deserve to be on the ground.”
The group reportedly elected not to press charges against Manhart, and campus police issued her a
criminal trespass warning,
effectively banning her from the school. She told The Valdosta Daily Times that she resisted arrest after seeing the flag being returned to the group.
Andy Clark, vice president for enrollment, marketing and communications at VSU, said the warning will also ban her from university activities, including graduation and football games.
Manhart, a former United States Air Force Military instructor, is no stranger to controversy. She was placed under investigation in 2007 after posing nude in Playboy magazine.
She was reprimanded and demoted as a result of the investigation and resigned from the service in 2008.
She later posed draped with an American flag in a series of videos and photographs for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. In an interview with The Valdosta Daily Times, she said she feels there is a big difference between her photo shoot with the flag and demonstrators walking on it.
“When we originally did that shoot, we did it for a specific cause,” said Manhart. “We wanted to portray what we have as Americans when we get rid of all our material things. We wanted to strip the human of all material items and stand behind the flag because if we don’t have anything, we still have this. We still have our freedom.”
Manhart said she knew the flag would touch the ground during her photo shoot and took preliminary measures to ensure that it was disposed of properly.
“We made sure before the shoot that the flag would be donated to the Boy Scouts, so they could dispose of the American flag since it touched the ground,” said Manhart. “We made sure of that. If any part of the flag was touching the ground we wanted to make sure it was done right.”
Manhart said she has no regrets about the photo shoot and views it as a celebration of freedom, which she believes stands in stark contrast to Friday’s demonstration at VSU.
The group gathered in front of Odum Library declined to identify themselves to the The Valdosta Daily Times or speak with a reporter about their cause.
Protesters did engage with VSU students about using the flag as “a symbol of our protest. When a slave understands his situation and understands he doesn’t want to be in slavery, he does not respect or revere anything his slavemaster has put in front of him.”
Manhart said she would like a letter of apology from the group and to take possession of the flag so she could dispose of it properly.
Manhart also said she understands that the 1989 Supreme Court decision Texas v. Johnson trumps federal and state statutes concerning flag desecration and protects demonstrators’ free speech rights to do what they want with the flag, but she still feels that it should be illegal.
“The bald eagle is a symbol of our country, and back in the 80s it was put on the endangered species list. You can’t touch that bird. It’s illegal,” said Manhart. “If we can do that with a bird, why can’t we place that same value on the flag.”
Her actions have gained widespread attention since Friday afternoon, and she is in the process of organizing an event for Wednesday that she said would show support for the flag and American military service members.
As for the demonstrators who were walking on the flag, she said she was not on campus long enough to fully understand their cause but might have supported it if it was not for the group walking on the flag.
“I saw what was happening, and I couldn’t believe nothing was being done about it. In my head I kept seeing all the caskets of our service members. It was like they were walking on their caskets,” said Manhart. “It hurt me so much. I couldn’t let it go on.”
Statement by VSU’s president
"The American flag represents everything that is best about our country. As the Supreme Court has held, one of those things is the right to free speech, which includes the right to disrespect even the symbol of our country. While I firmly disagree with the actions of the protesters, I understand their right to protest." — Dr. William J. McKinney, president of Valdosta State University