New wave of flag debates

Oak Bluffs select board recites concerns of potential litigation if they raise Pride, Juneteenth flags.

The Oak Bluffs select board raised concerns about a proposed revision of a town flag policy. — MV Times

Roughly a year since the Oak Bluffs select board voted to adopt a new flag policy, the discussion regarding raising non-federal flags on town property resurfaced.

After a few failed attempts to amend the flag policy to enhance inclusivity, select board member Emma Green-Beach shared the newest version of alternative policy at Tuesday’s board meeting, which would introduce a secondary, “ceremonial” flagpole.

The idea had been briefly floated last year by select board member Jason Balboni, though the board never moved in that direction. 

Instead, the select board approved the adoption of a restrictive flag policy last May, prohibiting any flags aside from those approved by the select board — flags of the U.S., the commonwealth of Massachusetts, the town of Oak Bluffs, and official military and POW-MIA — from being raised on town property. 

This came as a blow to members of the community who had been vigilantly advocating for the flying of the Progress Pride flag and Juneteenth flag last year in celebration of June’s Pride Month and Juneteenth.

The select board reluctantly agreed to temporarily fly the Progress Pride flag for 14 days last June, preceding the adoption of the policy; a subsequent request from the NAACP to fly the Juneteenth flag was later denied.

Citing concerns over potential litigation, the select board referred to a May 2022 ruling by the Supreme Court that the city of Boston was in violation of the First Amendment when it denied a request by a conservative activist group to fly a Christian flag outside City Hall (Shurtleff v. Boston).

But after the select board engaged the town’s legal advisors for assistance regarding the flag issue, town counsel Ron Rappaport clarified that the Boston ruling does not mean a restriction on raising third-party flags; rather it highlights the need for government entities to use their discretion.

Complementing the Supreme Court’s decision on Shurtleff v. Boston was a court’s opinion, written by Justice Stephen Breyer’s on behalf of court members.  

“The government must be able to decide what to say and what not to say when it states an opinion, speaks for the community, formulates policies, or implements programs,” he wrote.

In a call with The Times following last year’s adoption of the Oak Bluffs flag policy, Rappaport said that the select board is free to “speak on the causes they choose,” and that flying a flag is considered free speech. When asked how that can come into play with such a restrictive policy, Rappaport said the town’s policy can be useful for when there is a request to fly a flag that is divisive to the community. 

At Tuesday’s select board meeting, Oak Bluffs Business Association vice president and local business owner Sofie Green asked board members whether they’ve received requests to fly flags other than the Progress Pride and Juneteenth flags. 

Town administrator Deborah Potter said the town had received “a couple” of informal requests, but declined to specify where those requests came from. None of those requests were made publicly in front of the select board. 

Green asked the select board if the town had received complaints from residents about the temporary raising of the Progress Pride flag last year.

“Any written complaints? I don’t think I’ve personally received a written complaint,” select board member Jason Balboni said. 

Board member Gail Barmakian confirmed that answer. “I did not see any,” she said.

Despite comments made by former select board member Brian Packish last year that the town had gotten requests from the community for other flags to be flown, in addition to receiving “hate email,” records later requested and obtained by The Times could not substantiate those claims.

Jenelle Gadowski, a member of the NAACP’s executive committee and LGBTQ committee chair, reminded the board of the local support garnered when first requesting that the Progress Pride flag be raised, including the leaders of the town’s emergency services. 

“The Progress Pride flag highlights inclusivity and diversity,” she said, noting that political leaders like former state Gov. Charlie Baker, and former and current presidents Barack Obama and Joe Biden, are in support of the flag.

Gadowski was followed by a number of other members of the public, offering similarly supportive testimony. 

Select board member Emma Green-Beach said that unlike the Boston case, where the city “did not exercise their government speech properly,” Oak Bluffs as a town can choose what flags to raise on town property.

Installing a ceremonial flagpole could be a way to thread the needle between showing support of the town’s community and evading any potential pushback on – or from – town officials.

The purpose would be “to communicate the town’s recognition of the inclusivity and diversity of the community which it serves,” she said. 

Town administrator Deborah Potter said the proposal for a secondary flagpole has “defects,” in that “it doesn’t specify a division between a regular flagpole and a ceremonial flagpole.”

She said there needs to be a clear definition of what “ceremonial” is. “Once [the board] votes one in, [the board’s] going to have a hard time, without a definition, denying any other flag for any other reason,” she said. It would require applications, she said.

Newly elected board member Dion Alley agreed, adding, “There’s no way you can limit who can apply.”

Green-Beach reiterated that what flags are flown would be up to the discretion of the select board, and not open to public input. 

Newly elected select board member Tom Hallahan agreed, citing the Boston case that notes the ability for governments to have freedom of speech.

“These flags represent different groups of people, not just who they are, but their history,” he said. “They’re not just nylon blowing in the wind.”

Select board member Gail Barmakian said overall, she’s supportive of the idea of installing a ceremonial pole — the details of which are far from being hammered out.

“I’m a little old-fashioned,” she said, admitting that she was initially hesitant about third-party flags being flown at all on town property. “But it’s a sign of the times these days, that it is a statement, it is an expression,” she said. “For me, I need to step up to the times and see that it is an opportunity for expression … I welcome it.”

Per select board member Jason Balboni’s suggestion, the board ultimately decided to reach out to town counsel for further assistance on the issue.

In other news, after issuing request for proposals in early March, the select board voted to award Lawrence Lynch Corp. the construction contract for the North Bluff/Seaview Avenue project, which will include a new roundabout. 

The board also voted to authorize the town administrator to execute a three-year lease for four electric vehicles for town employees for $51,695. 

Meanwhile, Tuesday was the first select board meeting for newly elected Tom Hallahan and Dion Alley, replacing former board members Brian Packish and Ryan Ruley.

In a reorganization of the board structure, Emma Green-Beach and Gail Barmakian were voted chair and vice chair, respectively.


  1. You must be inclusive if you choose to be inclusive.
    I want the town to fly the Christian Flag. And the following month we need to fly the satanist flag. And after that the DAR flag then the boy scouts flag and then the Nambla flag and then the Don’t tread on Me flag and then the…….
    Celebrate one celebrate all.

  2. OK. Call me old fashioned but what impact can a certain population’s flag really mean ?? You’re recognized isn’t that the point??

  3. This is a diverse community, and no government can adequately speak on its collective behalf. It should, therefore, exercise its discretion not to speak at all. The flags in question are divisive – that’s exactly why their proponents wish to see them flown. All of these people can choose to fly any flag they want from their own property, yet they choose to continue to insist on governmental endorsement of their views. But there’s always an opposing view – after the Shurtleff decision the Satanic Temple applied to fly their flag in Boston. How do you draft an effective policy that allows one view to be expressed while also silencing opposing speech that you’re uncomfortable with?

    But it’s all about diversity, right? Except that “Green-Beach reiterated that what flags are flown would be up to the discretion of the select board, and not open to public input.” So diversity of opinion from the little folk is not to be tolerated, and the Select Board is to assume the mantel of Ministry of Propaganda.

    Did you know that there was a Pro-Life flag? Will the Select Board approve the flying of that one – if not, why not? I guess Ms. Green-Beach doesn’t feel that I’m entitled to an answer on that one.

    The Select Board adopted a policy last year to avoid liability that may arise from this nonsense, now they’re considering amending that policy a year later even though nothing has changed. Will they consider changing it again next year? Wouldn’t this sort of ever-shifting policy approach be just as risky as having no policy at all?

  4. Apparently. I am “woke”, as I support the rights of the LGBTQ+++++++ communities, BLM etc.
    I also think climate change is real, you know who lost the election, and that the marketers of M&M’s can draw “inclusive” characters to sell sugar. If Budweiser wants to have a trans person sell beer, so be it.
    But– there are some tricky issues with local governments and the first amendment of the constitution. I am totally opposed to the town flying a pride flag on town property.
    It is simply not within the purview of the town to support one cause over another.
    I feel that if the town flies a pride flag, it is obligated to fly a confederate battle flag.
    Or the flag of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (my personal favorite)
    Let me be clear, in America;
    you have the freedom to be a racist and criticize BLM
    you have the freedom to support BLM and criticize racist
    You have the freedom to be homophobic,
    you have the freedom to choose your gender and marry someone of your gender
    you have the freedom to support and even vote for a mobster for political office.
    you have the freedom to vote that mobster out of office.
    And you have the freedom to fly any flag you want on your personal property.
    The town does not.

    • Freedom and license are two different things. Lots of things are free to do but we shouldnt do them.

        • Jim, my name is Andrew.
          The idea of genuine liberty or freedom over against the self-indulgence that is sometimes called “license,” a self-indulgence that inevitably leads to tyranny from within and from without. The definition of freedom is “the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint. The definition of license is lacking moral discipline or ignoring legal restraint; having no regard for accepted rules or standards. Freedom is understood as the right of human beings to self-determination and to act of their own free will without external pressure or coercion. Thus, each person can choose how to think, how to speak, and how to act without being conditioned. However, this must be done responsibly and in accordance with social and moral norms.
          In other words, in a certain sense, true freedom is a utopia. None of us is completely free insofar as we are subject to laws and ethical mandates, and we must respect the freedoms of others.
          For its part, licentiousness is an excessive and misunderstood use of individual freedom. In this case, thoughts, words, and actions don’t correspond with the natural limitations of which we speak and therefore become abusive and harmful to oneself or to others. There’s no responsibility and no respect. There are no limits. Waiting in line for movie tickets or standing for an elderly person on a bus are simple examples. We are free not to.

          • That’s an awful lot for not actually answering the question Andrew. I didn’t ask for a definition of freedom and license and the difference between them. I know what freedom is. And how it’s described. I asked for an example, based on your comment, of things we are free to do but shouldn’t. It’s more of a moral question.

        • Albert– I don’t think Biden is involved in this debate.
          But I guess you are free to show off you case of Biden Derangement Syndrome with pride.

          • Don, come seventy some level of derangement is a given.
            Recognize it.
            We go out like we came in, babbling.
            Hillary and Biden were not good choices.
            Under the circumstances, the best choices.
            I am a patriotic non partisan.

  5. When the Nazis groups here in the U.S., want to march on public streets and wave their flags that’s ok according to the U.S. Supreme Court. I dare say there is not many here on island would attend the Nazis parade to cheer their message non-inclusion. What I glean from this article different groups are looking for recognition by hanging their flag which is a step towards inclusion which is part and parcel being included into a larger group. I being an American am all for inclusion of all groups and peoples that’s why we are a great country and people the world over look to us as yes, the city on a hill.
    Having myself served in the military for a number of years and taken the oath to defend the constitution of the United States of America against all enemies foreign and domestic. I take ownership and take pride of the ideas and ideals written in our constitution, which we as a nation are forever trying to get right. And it is through the process of getting it right is where the life of our republic lives, through angry words, hate filled speech, loving embrace, feeding the children and just living our day to day the republic is the mirror of ourselves and it is as weak or as strong as we make it.
    As a child every morning in my class room many years ago my teacher would pick out a deserving student, he or she showing and observing the best behavior to lead our class in the pledge of allegiance to the flag of the United States of America. We would stand at attention and salute the symbol of our republic by placing our hands over our hearts and swear our allegiance to the same. Something to this day which fills my breast with pride and with a lump in my throat thinking about all who lost their lives and limbs, all those who lost their loved ones to death, dismemberment, and substance abuse I also think of all the suffering of my fellow black citizens who were tortured and abused to build this nation, of my fellow first citizens who were robbed, killed, and forced off their lands. Our republic is a living breathing testament to our inadequacies and fears but also our hope and love, we are the people, we are the ones to decide our collective fates.
    I have come full circle on this debate of flying non-government flags, the more I include people whom do not think the way I do the richer I become. I was always under the opinion that the flag of the United States represented all of this republic after all that’s why I took an oath and served I believed the government was serving all the citizens, I was wrong to many of us are marginalized and not listened to, to many under served, to many not given what is theirs from their labors, to many hungry, to many yearning to be part of the whole. May God Bless America and for all of which it stands, for the people.

      • Yes I do.
        That is why so many Americans have Canadian flags on their backpacks when travelling abroad.
        An American flag is a target.

    • The use of the American flag has become so garish.
      The use of the American flag to make crotch patches and wife beaters being prime examples

  6. Several of the commenters don’t seem to have actually read the draft flag policy, so here’s a little refresher. From the first paragraph:

    “Flagpoles will serve the purpose of exhibiting government speech of the Town, and will communicate aspects of the Town’s recognition of the inclusivity and diversity of the community which it serves, in a manner that does not advance or inhibit any particular religion, culture, organization, or ethnicity. Flagpoles are not intended to exhibit the free speech of the public, at any time.”

    That last sentence makes clear that the flagpoles constitute “government speech.” They are not covered by the First Amendment. (“Government speech” has been established in case law. It is, in other words, A Thing.) The city of Boston’s mistake was in not making this distinction, so the plaintiffs in _Shurtleff_ were justified in claiming that their flag had been unfairly excluded.

    Any individual or group, however, can apply to the select board to have its flag flown, as long as it meets the criteria in that introductory paragraph. Whether it does or not is up to the select board. If, say, eighth-grade students from the Oak Bluffs School asked to fly a flag to celebrate their graduation, would the select board approve their request? My hunch is that they would, even though most town residents don’t have students in the school. If someone asked to fly a flag bearing a Nazi swastika, would the select board approve *their* request? I think not, and they would have good reason to reject it.

    Section 2.2.G. of the draft policy says this: “The Town may, at its discretion, display ceremonial flags, for limited periods of time. Such flags may include, but are not limited to, flags commemorating local holidays or events which are important to the community and the Town.”

    Again, anyone can apply, and the select board will use the criteria in the introductory paragraph to evaluate each request. It isn’t expected that everyone in town, or even every member of the select board, will be equally enthusiastic about every request. That’s what diversity is about: we’re all part of one community, and we try to respect the experiences and views of our townsfolk whether we share them or not.

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