Two unidentified men walked into the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia late Monday afternoon and snatched an American flag from a student exhibit that has become the center of growing anger and argument and turned it over to authorities at a nearby sheriff's station.
Shortly after the theft, a small contingent of members from American Legion Post 507 in Newhall arrived at the avant-garde school to peacefully protest the exhibit, which featured the flag tacked to the floor. It is similar to a display that has caused a stir in Chicago.
"It's a sad state of affairs," Adam Greene, the fourth-year student who created the work, said of the theft. "It is, at its best, inane."
The legionnaire demonstrators did not immediately claim responsibility for the theft. However, earlier in the day, representatives of the group had promised they would steal the flag.
"We have members who say they will go up there, rip the flag off the ground, properly fold it and show up at the sheriff's station and say, 'Yes, we stole it,' " post Cmdr. Armie Trujillo said prior to the theft.
"Some good, red-blooded young men picked up the flag and brought it into the station, saying it was being displayed in violation of the law," said Sheriff's Sgt. Carle Goyan of the Santa Clarita station.
Goyan said the men told sheriff's deputies that they left a note at the exhibit saying, "They had committed this terrible deed and . . . if they wanted it back, they would have to come (to the sheriff's station) and get it . . . ."
Deputies placed the flag in evidence, took statements from both men and released them, pending a complaint being filed by either artist Greene or the school, another sheriff's spokesman said. Deputies declined to comment on the identities of the men.
Greene's exhibit has drawn sharp criticism from residents of surrounding communities and from people within the school. Earlier Monday, it also drew a visit from sheriff's deputies, who told school officials that the display could be in violation of state and federal laws, said John Orders, assistant to the CalArts' president.
CalArts officials vowed to support the artwork but also posted a sign beside it warning, "The administration has been advised that it may be unlawful to step upon or trample the American flag."
Greene intended that his artwork be a show of support for artist Scott Tyler, whose similar piece has been making national news at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Tyler's "What Is the Proper Way to Display the American Flag?" includes a flag draped on the floor and a ledger for comments. For all but the most nimble, it is necessary to step on the flag to write in the ledger.
As many as 200 veterans demonstrated at the Chicago institute, and school officials temporarily closed the exhibit. A Cook County circuit judge Friday dismissed a suit filed by veterans, and the exhibit was reopened.
Sunday, a visiting Virginia teacher who stepped on the flag was arrested in Chicago and charged with desecration of the flag, a felony that carries a maximum sentence of three years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
Greene, who learned of the Chicago exhibit through newspaper and television reports, opened his exhibit last Wednesday.
"Artists have to stand up for each other. If we don't, who will?" Greene, 28, said. "This piece is not about a cold, anti-American feeling. It's very important that it is seen as being against censorship."
Greene's piece is smaller than the original, and his ledger book is more easily accessible without stepping on the flag.
"I see it as a pro-American piece," Greene said. "It stands for civil rights, for the idea that we can say anything."
Serious opposition to Greene's work formed quickly on campus. By Friday afternoon, about 50 staff members mounted a counter-exhibit with a flag flying from a potted plant.
"We find the flag exhibit offensive and disrespectful and wish it known that we DO NOT SUPPORT IT!!!" their exhibit stated.
By Saturday morning, as word of Greene's flag exhibit spread, the school began receiving angry phone calls from the community.
John Berlin, a music student who works on the school's switchboard, said the exhibit has triggered "a lot of threats, a lot of anger around this school."
As a result of Monday's visit, the Sheriff's Department will make a report to the district attorney's office, which will decide whether the exhibit is in violation of the law.
No exhibit has ever been censored at CalArts, administrators said. The form that students fill out to request display space does not ask for a description of the work.
"We consider free speech and the open exploration of ideas to be central not only to the production of art but to the well-being of a free society," Orders said in a prepared statement.
He later added, "Controversy is what an art school is about, right?"
On Monday, students offered responses to the work ranging from approval to anger to indifference. Four joined with the legionnaires' pickets and later taped protest placards near Greene's display.
Comments in Greene's ledger were similarly mixed:
"This is stupid, pointless and childish. Don't you have enough talent to do something good?"
"The proper way to display a U.S. flag is in the closet, until it really stands for something."
Protesting legionnaires, who promised to return if Greene restores the flag, offered harsher words.
"I'm all for the First Amendment. Hell, I fought for it," said Billy Pappas, 40, a Vietnam veteran from Newhall. "But putting the flag on the floor is not art.
"I'm sorry if I offended anyone," Greene said of his exhibit, which is scheduled to close Friday. "But if standing up for free speech offends someone, then it has to be."
Times staff writers Steve Padilla and Nieson Himmel contributed to this article.