Selectboard logo, May 20, 2019
'... façade of the Town Hall building is not to be used for the display of any banners ....'

Revived policy discussion awaits vote, as some object

Board members revived at its July 18 meeting the discussion dating back two years about whether town-owned property can be used for publicity and promotion, recommending that no banners be displayed outside Town Hall.

In the wake of George Floyd's death in Minneapolis in May 2020, a Black Lives Matter banner hung in front of Town Hall from June 8 to Sept. 30 that year.

After many in town wanted to see it returned, Town Meeting discussed an article about the matter in December 2020. An amended motion was adopted, 166-34, with 38 abstaining. YourArlington reported at the time that the “meeting voted to support a motion that expects to lead to a request to the Select Board to return the Black Lives Matter banner to Town Hall.” 

In January 2021, the Select Board agreed to keep discussing the issue

That discussion resumed July 18 as the board has recommended adding the following statement to the town’s Select Board policy:

“The primary purpose of this update is to: (1) declare that the façade of the Town Hall building is not to be used for the display of any banners, informational or otherwise, and to (2) emphasize that banners displayed on light poles must come at the request of an officially recognized town board, commission, or committee to promote an activity of or sponsored by that board, commission, or committee for a specific and limited period.”

 See all documents related to this agenda item >> 

The issue was tabled, and a decision is expected later, at an unspecified date.

Policy explanation

Town Counsel Doug Heim said, “We’re talking about two concepts in the First Amendment clause: Should Town Hall be a limited public forum, in which private speech is allowed? There also have to be content-neutral regulations in place; we cannot allow some flags, and not others.” 

The U.S. Supreme Court held in a decision in May that Boston wasn’t engaging in public speech when using flagpoles outside of City Hall, which didn’t want to put up Christian flags, the issue that spurred that debate.

However, Heim said, the ruling doesn’t affect traditional public forums. "People can assemble on the steps of Town Hall, and the Supreme Court decision limits banners on public buildings, not free speech. We need discussions on how committees and commissions can advertise activities and events. This policy allows other government bodies to decide what they’d like to promote."

“The Select Board’s role is to make sure these content-neutral issues are allowed. If we engage in public policy, it must pertain to a specific event, such as Black History Month, and be voted on and approved by a committee or commission,” explained Heim.

Board member John Hurd said, “This is the direction we should be going in. Most residents don’t want banners on Town Hall. The Supreme Court’s decision stipulates that if we put up one statement, we cannot regulate what others put up—it’s not specific to one banner, or one issue.

Board member Steve DeCourcey asked: “This is a complicated issue. If we choose to engage in government speech, where and how will we do it other than Town Hall?”

Town Manager Sandy Pooler said, “If this were to be put in place as indicative of government speech, it’s not inconsistent with the town’s ability to make statements about events.”

Four board members discussed the issue; Diane Mahon was absent.

Open forum

'The authoritarianism that’s gripping our country is like the normalization of fascism in Germany.'
        -- Lynette     Culverhouse

During the meeting’s open forum, several residents expressed disappointment in the updated policy to not hang banners on Town Hall.

Judith Garber said: “It’s in direct opposition to what Town Meeting decided [in 2020]. The Black Lives Matter banner is a statement of human rights, not a political decision. Removing it moves us in the wrong direction on basic civil-rights issues. What if, heaven forbid, there’s another George Floyd situation?”

Precinct 10 Town Meeting member Elizabeth Dray said: “I feel like we’re playing it safe and that many people, such as the LGBTQIA community, are having their human rights stripped daily.

Precinct 11 meeting member Lynette Culverhouse: “The authoritarianism that’s gripping our country is like the normalization of fascism in Germany. I’d like to think that we can avoid falling prey to outside forces against our freedoms. With this policy, we’d no longer be able to hang the Pride banner. I’d like to focus on freedom and inclusion.”

See the ACMi video of the July 18 meeting:

 


Jan 20, 2021: Black Lives Matter banner’s future under discussion

 

Dec. 4, 2020: STM No. 5 backs plea to return Black Lives Matter banner to Town Hall

 


 This news summary, by YourArlington freelance writer Susan Gilbert, was published Friday, July 22, 2022.