WASHINGTON — The latest front line in the free speech war is a balcony in the Pennsylvania state Capitol — and it's being fought over marijuana and rainbow flags.
The flags belong to Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, a tattooed 6-foot-8 Democrat considering a run for Senate next year, who hung the pro-legalization green leaf and LGBTQ rights flags from the balcony of his office, which overlooks the state Capitol’s front steps and much of downtown Harrisburg.
"The GOP collectively shrugged when a couple of its members were photographed down in D.C. on Jan. 6, but my pride and weed flags are a point of outrage for them?" Fetterman told NBC News, referring to the day of the Capitol riot.
Republicans, who control the Legislature, quietly tucked a provision to ban unauthorized flags on Capitol grounds into an omnibus budget bill that passed late last year. After the governor, Tom Wolf, a Democrat who is elected separately from the lieutenant governor, signed it into law — needed to avoid a government shutdown — state employees removed the flags from Fetterman's balcony earlier this week and left them folded in his office.
Fetterman quickly replaced the flags in defiance of the law and says he’ll continue to do so if they're taken down again until the state legalizes marijuana and outlaws discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
Fetterman said the move is ironic at a time when conservative complain about “cancel culture” and attacks on free speech.
“I was just making a statement. I never in a million years thought that they would actually write a law to ban them,” Fetterman said. “They can't understand how ridiculous this looks. They're all about free speech except when it's speech they don't like, apparently."
The measure did not specifically mention Fetterman or his flags. And Republicans say it's merely an effort "to create some uniformity and decorum for what's outside the Capitol," according to Jason Gottesman, spokesperson for State House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff.
“Members of both parties have flags and posters that they've displayed internally, but that doesn't have to do with the outside of the Capitol, which is a National Historic Landmark and the most visible building in Harrisburg,” Gottesman said, noting that school groups frequently tour the building.
Gottesman said that the bill had been negotiated with Wolf and that the facade of the Capitol should be used to promote nonpartisan causes, such as when it was illuminated in orange to promote hunger awareness.
But Fetterman believes the law is all about his flags, which provoked some public complaints from Republican lawmakers, and he isn't going to let this flag fracas fade.
“It's flattering to be living rent free in their head like this,” he joked.
By coincidence, the state Legislature voted down equal protection language for LGBTQ people on the same day it passed the budget bill with the flag provision, Fetterman said.
There are no clear penalties for Fetterman's defiance since the new law states only that "the Department of General Services shall ensure that no flag other than the United States flag, the Pennsylvania flag or a flag authorized ... shall be flown" on Capitol grounds.
"It's out of our hands to enforce it," Gottesman said. "We'd be hopeful that everybody would follow the law. It'd be a lot easier for everyone to just comply up front instead of making an issue out of it."
Fetterman, 51, whom GQ recently dubbed an "American taste god" even though he owns only one suit, has attracted national attention for his unorthodox style and frequent public fighting with Republicans, particularly on Twitter.
A Harvard grad, Fetterman was elected mayor of Braddock, his struggling hometown in Western Pennsylvania, and worked to revitalize it before running for Senate in 2016, but lost the primary to the Democratic Party's favored candidate, who went on to lose the general election.
Now he's eyeing a 2022 run for the open seat being vacated by Sen. Pat Toomey, a Republican, in what is expected to be one of the most competitive Senate races in the country.