25 Investigates: Woman fined for hanging American flag on her front door

By: Eric Rasmussen , Erin Smith

Updated:

BOSTON - A Leominster woman was forced to pay a fine for hanging an American flag on her own front door – a move that has one state lawmaker calling for action to protect patriotic homeowners.

Elizabeth Heller called Boston 25 News Investigative Reporter Eric Rasmussen because she said it “isn’t right” that her condo association forced her to take down the flag she hung in celebration of July 4th at her complex – ironically named Liberty Commons.

“I was appalled,” said Heller. “This was the flag that was hanging on the outside of my door on July 1.”

Property managers sent Heller a notice for having a “prohibited personal item” and fined her $20 per day over three days.

“I'm like, you live in the United States, these men fight for your freedom and you're telling me to take my flag down?” said Heller.

Heller’s condo board restricts decorations to an “18-inch diameter circle or square.”

But even before she was fined $60 for her American flag, the board dinged her for all kinds of things, including a $620 fine for a small garden on her back patio because it was considered a “common area.”

And the condo board hasn’t just been fining Heller.

Financial records obtained by 25 Investigates show Liberty Commons charged residents more than $49,000 in fines in just the first nine months of 2016.

Heller and other residents told 25 Investigates the man pushing the hard line is Steve Stearns, the president of the condo board.

Heller said forcing her to take down the American flag was the final straw.

“This really angered me and I'm not going to put up with it anymore,” said Heller.

Stearns, an outspoken condo board president who routinely shares quotes, warnings and other notices to residents on his Liberty Commons blog, did not respond to 25 Investigates' repeated attempts to reach him.

A lawyer for the condo complex told 25 Investigates in an email that Heller was fined because she “failed to obtain permission from the board” before hanging the flag on her door.

The lawyer did not respond to other questions, including what happens to the tens of thousands of dollars in fines collected from condo residents or where that money goes.

The case touched a nerve with State Rep. John Velis, a Westfield Democrat and U.S. Army Reserve member who’s now vowing to take action.
           
“I just think it's absolutely disgusting,” said Velis.

Congress passed the federal Freedom to Display the American Flag Act of 2005, but critics say it’s not tough enough to protect homeowners.

“I can assure you, if this conduct is allowed in Massachusetts, I will be filing legislation to redress this,” said Velis.

25 Investigates found at least 10 states have passed their own tougher laws in recent years to stop condo boards and other associations from barring residents from flying the American flag.

“No one should be able to tell you to remove the American flag – no one,” said Heller.

Heller says the fight isn’t just for her. She tells 25 Investigates her grandson served a tour of duty in Afghanistan.

“I've had brothers in the service. I have nephews in the service,” said Heller. “You need to show support. Honor them on those days.”

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