MOUNT DESERT — The Maple Lane Apartments in Northeast Harbor might seem an unlikely place for conflict to erupt over the display of the Confederate battle flag.
But resident Gordon Schoen claims that Terry Kelley, executive director of the Mount Desert Island Housing Authority, which owns the apartments, violated his free speech rights by ordering the removal of items from his apartment door, including small images of the controversial flag.
Schoen, 68, said that in observance of the Fourth of July, he used magnets to attach a laminated image of the American flag to the outside of his door, along with three smaller images of the Confederate flag. Also attached to the door was a plastic reproduction of a human skull.
Schoen said he likes to decorate his door and often changes the displays every few days.
He said that on July 7, a member of the Housing Authority’s maintenance staff told him that Kelley wanted everything on his door taken down. Schoen said he told the employee, “I’m not removing it. If it’s the Confederate flag issue, it’s my belief that those people died for the Confederate States of America [and] they should be honored just like anybody else.”
Schoen said Kelley arrived about 30 minutes later “all nasty, fists clenched, yelling at me in the hall.” Kelley denies that characterization.
Schoen said Kelley told him that the items on his door offended him.
“I said, ‘I don’t care if it offends you,’” Schoen said. “I told him, ‘Be specific. What offends you?’ Well, he wouldn’t do it.”
Kelley told the Islander that he had been specific about what he found offensive.
“Him hanging the Confederate battle flag in a community space I felt was inappropriate, especially given the fact that it was the Fourth of July, and it was going on in the reality of today’s world,” he said. “So, I told him to take it down.”
Kelley denied that he had behaved in an uncivil manner.
“I was firm with him, but I wasn’t all that upset.”
Asked if he thought his demand that Schoen remove items from his door raised a freedom of speech issue, Kelley said, “Maybe. Who knows? But I found it quite offensive and inappropriate.
“I haven’t a clue what goes through somebody’s mind that would have them [display the Confederate flag],” he added. “If it’s a freedom of speech issue, why would you want to pick that one on the Fourth of July?”
Kelley said he thinks it was a member of the Housing Authority staff who brought the Confederate flag display to his attention. He said he also told Schoen to remove the plastic skull because he thought it, too, was offensive.
Ironically, Schoen said he had been about to remove the items from the door when the Housing Authority employee told him to take them down. Although he refused to remove them then and when Kelley ordered him to, he said he did so shortly after Kelley left.
Schoen said Friday that he had lodged a complaint about Kelley with Elderly Protective Services of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.
“They said one of their people is going to be doing an investigation on it,” he said.
Schoen said he also intends to file complaints with the American Civil Liberties Union and the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.
Schoen is originally from Maryland, where he said his family owned a thoroughbred horse farm. He also was an antiques dealer in two towns in Maryland and two in Pennsylvania, including Gettysburg.
“Then my father got sick, and I had to shut it all down,” he said.
After that, Schoen and his mother moved to Mount Desert Island, where they lived for 10 years before going back to Maryland. She died about six weeks after their return.
After three years, Schoen said he came back to MDI and moved into the Maple Lane Apartments, where he has lived for the past three years.
He said it is wrong to equate the Confederate battle flag with the beliefs of the Ku Klux Klan, saying the Klan only uses the “rebel flag” as their symbol because “they’re too illiterate to design their own flag.”
But he acknowledged, “I have friends in the Klan. My cousin is in the Klan in Maryland.”
“How disrespectful to all those men who died in the CSA (Confederate States of America) to now ban this flag,” he said. “I think that’s terrible.”
Schoen said the lease agreement that Housing Authority residents sign before they move in prohibits them from attaching anything to the outside of their apartment doors, but that many people ignore that ban. However, Kelley said there are no such restrictions.
“They can have stuff on their doors; they all do,” he said. “I love to see things in the common areas that are celebratory. But I don’t see too much about the Confederate battle flag to celebrate.
“In the past, I’ve had people hang up swastikas, and I had those removed, too. I guess I’d put those two in about the same category.”
Schoen replaced the flags and skull on his door with a few small religious images. He said in an email to the Islander on Saturday, “My Christian display has been removed as of today by an unknown.”
The Maple Lane Apartments comprise 18 one-bedroom units.
The MDI Housing Authority is a quasi-governmental agency that provides rental housing for low-income families and individuals, the elderly and disabled who meet eligibility requirements. It operates public housing facilities in Bar Harbor, Mount Desert, Southwest Harbor and Tremont.