Selectboard logo, May 20, 2019

Arlington’s Select Board is assembling a subcommittee to determine what signs, flags and banners can hang at Town Hall and other public spaces, and aims to have this issue resolved by late June.

The local concern arose after Boston denied an application to fly a Christian flag at Boston City Hall. The government has the right to convey messages about what it does, and does not, favor by choosing the messages and symbols it displays, a memo from Town Counsel Doug Heim says. 

Boston has suspended its flag raising until a Supreme Court ruling, expected in June. Read about the background here >>

This issue “exercises the discretion to decide what the government does and does not stand for, and excluding or curtailing speech the government disagrees with,” wrote Town Counsel Doug Heim in a memo to the Select Board.  

At the Jan. 24 board meeting, he said: “It’s a real issue, where the government can create a public forum versus public speech, and is of great concern to both the board and the public. When does the town’s government permit speech that’s allowed to be broadcast? There are competing concerns of which platforms can be aired.

“We’re still trying to figure out these issues, and how to navigate them in practical terms. We don’t want to broadcast and/or display messages that are not the values we support. Our messages are things that the Select Board is allowed and needs to say, and the natural consequences are that some people don’t agree with this,” said Heim.

“There are competing First Amendment concerns, and it would be beneficial to develop a clear policy going forward,” added Heim.

Select Board member Diane Mahon said, “There should be a policy. When we started hanging banners on Town Hall, we established a policy that anything hung would be a town event. If you open it up to anything other than town or school events, other messages may be an issue of fairness, but don’t reflect the town’s policies.” 

“The Select Board adopted a banner and sign policy in 2013. The desire is to review and potentially update the issue of free speech,” explained Town Manager Adam Chapdelaine.

Select Board member John Hurd said, “It’s not appropriate to hang any type of banner at Town Hall. We can come up with appropriate places for government speech, if the Supreme Court case determines it’s OK to do so. I’ve had requests for banners of all types across the political spectrum.” 

Select Board member Eric Helmuth said the board “could choose which messages it wants for its building and signs. Having a correct policy is a smart thing to do, so we don’t have unintended consequences . . . . This work has to be informed by the legal decision, and I’m interested in seeing what the Supreme Court does.”

“We need to be mindful of what the Supreme Court decides,” said board Chair Steve DeCourcey, an attorney. 

Watch the whole Jan. 24 meeting on ACMi:

Jan. 21, 2022: Board to investigate why double poles remain

This news summary, by YourArlington freelance writer Susan Gilbert, was published Monday, Feb. 7, 2022.