Selectboard logo, May 20, 2019
'Town Hall will not be a place for government speech.'
 -- Town Counsel Heim, referring to banners

UPDATED Aug. 26: The Select Board voted to prohibit the use of Town Hall’s façade for government speech in a 3-2 vote at its Monday, Aug. 22, meeting. Chair Len Diggins, John Hurd and Diane Mahon voted yes; Steve DeCourcey and Eric Helmuth voted no, recommending further discussion.

The vote reflects a significant change in the official stance from June 2020, when a Black Lives Matter banner was hung at Town Hall following the death of George Floyd.

This decision revises an Arlington Select Board policy by adding the following statement:

“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.”

Town Counsel Doug Heim explained, referring to banners: “Town Hall will not be a place for government speech. Further work needs to be done if government speech can be made elsewhere.” 

Three board members oppose banners

Hurd: “I don’t think it’s appropriate to have government speech or any banners hanging on Town Hall. Many people liken it to one particular banner, but that’s not the case. Establishing a policy that it won’t be Town Hall gives us the opportunity to talk to town staff and committees about specific policies regarding government speech.

“As long as Town Hall remains a possibility, it’s hard to engage in discussions about where else government speech can appear in town. However, Town Hall can still have up-lighting for specific purposes.”

Mahon: “I don’t see how having Town Hall for government speech would work. If we get into anything that’s a statement, we have to offer it to everyone. That unnecessarily creates a divisive issue, and I don’t think that’s the way to go.” 

Diggins: “We need to be, as seat of government, open to all residents.”

Two board members open to further discussion

DeCourcey: “We have to think that if we’re engaging in government speech, what sphere are we involved in? If we’re removing Town Hall from publicity and promotion, there’d still be issues to discuss. I’d like to see the government speech policy developed a bit more.”

Helmuth: “I would like a fuller explanation of the constitutional issues raised by the Shurtleff decision [the Boston case involving what constitutes government speech] to the degree that this draft proposal fits into the Supreme Court’s current doctrine on public forum government speech. I would like to find a way, and support a policy, that would allow government speech if our Town Counsel believes that it’s possible for this body to make decisions about signage on Town Hall. That will depend [on] if there’s enough support amongst my colleagues to do that. 

'I liked the former Select Board approval that never came to a vote that allowed some limited signage. I would like to proceed with care so that we are clear, under Shurtleff, what this proposal would do. Is that a sufficient protection against our having to accept banners that we don’t want?

"The hanging of any banner to support any marginalized group, which I care about, is not the most important thing that this town does on diversity, equity and inclusion. We’re going to ask some difficult questions, and invite real accountability for the town. I ask that members of the community continue to hold us accountable to that hard work. There is strong, unanimous commitment from this body, as part of our town leadership and staff, to do that."

Open-forum input

During the meeting’s citizen open forum, which occurred before the Town Hall banner discussion and vote, Elizabeth Dray, a Precinct 10 Town Meeting member, said: “I encourage the board to be brave and lift up the voices of people who need to be lifted up. Please don’t ban all banners from Town Hall. There’s a compromise there, and I urge you to find it.”

After the Black Lives Matter banner came down on Sept. 8, 2020, Dray was among those urging it to be restored.

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 last month as the board has recommended adding a statement to the town’s Select Board policy.

More will be reported in coming days about discussions and decisions that took place at the Aug. 22 meeting.

Watch the entire meeting on ACMi:

 

July 22, 2022: No Black Lives Matter banner on Town Hall, board recommends 

 

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 Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2022, and updated to clarify the nature of the speech, as well as Aug. 25, to add an ACMi video window. On Aug. 26, YourArlington published corrected comments by Eric Helmuth, and the site apologizes for its errors.

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