The reluctance of the Oak Bluffs Select Board to allow certain flags to fly is overly restrictive, and creates a perception of intolerance.
The town’s select board has quarreled off and on for more than a year over a flag policy. It’s a good discussion to have, given the embarrassment from last year, when the board did not allow the Juneteenth flag to fly, but allowed a Progressive Pride flag to fly weeks earlier.
There’s also a fear the town could be sued for setting the wrong policy. The city of Boston was sued for $2 million last year for not allowing a “Christian” flag to fly, in a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court.
But that doesn’t mean that symbols like the Pride flag or Juneteenth flag can’t, and shouldn’t, be flown. To the contrary: The willingness to show the colors of communities that have wrongfully been marginalized and oppressed for generations should be not only allowed but encouraged.
Last spring, the Oak Bluffs Select Board approved a new policy that does not allow flags on town poles aside from the American flag, the prisoners of war and missing in action flag, and other municipal and military flags.
The most recent proposal, pitched last week, is to create a new, “ceremonial” pole that will allow other flags.
As stated by a select board member during last week’s discussion, the idea is to “communicate the town’s recognition of the inclusivity and diversity of the community which it serves.”
The proposal might still need some refinement, but the spirit is there, and the board is headed in the right direction.
But some town officials worry that the new proposal would make it hard for the board to turn down “other” requests.
There was no mention of what those “other” requests might be at last week’s meeting. It’s not the first time town officials have stated a concern for these “other” flags. But after a records request by The Times, there’s been no indication that any specific applications have been made, nor have there been requests at other public meetings.
But even if some inappropriate requests are made (maybe it’s the Satanic Temple in Salem that made the request in Boston last summer), with the right policy, the board can be selective in what they allow to fly in the very public Ocean Park.
Looking at last year’s Boston case offers some clarity and guidance for Oak Bluffs.
Outside of City Hall, Boston has three flag poles. The American flag and state flag fly on two, and Boston typically flies the city’s flag from the third pole. Occasionally, they’ve allowed other groups to fly their flag as well. The city approved about 50 different requests between 2005 and 2017.
Then in 2017, Harold Shurtleff, the director of an organization called Camp Constitution, asked to hold an event on the plaza to celebrate the civic and social contributions of the Christian community. The group has raised some eyebrows for its claims that the Jan. 6 insurrection at the nation’s capital was a lie, and Shurtleff was previously employed by the John Birch Society, a right-wing extremist group.
As part of that ceremony at City Plaza, Shurtleff wanted to raise what he called the Christian flag.
The city approved the application to hold an event at the plaza, but didn’t allow the flag to fly, worried it would constitute government endorsement of a religion. Shurtleff sued on the grounds that his freedom of speech was violated.
The Supreme Court looked at whether this was government speech versus private expression. For government speech, the government is allowed to control its message, and there are little protections for free speech. But for private expression, speech can’t be restricted.
The city’s policy, at the time, was intended to accommodate all applicants, so the Supreme Court found that the city had created a public forum. With a public forum, the city was restricted by what it could allow without infringing on free speech. If a group of Nazis wanted to put up a flag, the court’s ruling said that they would have to.
After the ruling last summer, the Christian flag was flown for about two hours.
But since then, the city has changed its policy. The Boston City Council passed an ordinance in August last year saying that any flag-raising request was not a matter of free expression but of official government, city-endorsed expression. For a flag to fly, the mayor has to make a declaration, or the council can pass a resolution. In other words, it’s coming from the government; it’s not a public forum.
If Oak Bluffs wants to be able to fly the Pride flag or the Juneteenth flag, they could also set a policy that clearly lays out flag flying as strictly government business. Maybe it’s a declaration read by the board.
But what is somewhat troubling, town officials in Oak Bluffs know this. Their own town counsel said as much at a public meeting, which makes us wonder why they haven’t set a new policy. Without a clear answer, there is a perception of resistance. And the perception that they are uncomfortable flying a Pride flag or a Juneteenth flag.
The town administrator recommends that the board set a clearer definition of what constitutes ceremony, in reference to installing a new, ceremonial flagpole. It’s a question worth considering. The board should not be in the position of approving every well-intentioned flag, such as those for International Pizza Day or National Pillow Fight Day. That only decreases the power of more meaningful flags.
But the board should base its decision on what has support from the community. Like when the Oak Bluffs Business Association and other residents came out to support the Pride flag. Or when the Vineyard chapter of the NAACP came out in support of the Juneteenth flag. Those requests had community buy-in.
Select board members are elected to make the right decisions. Those might be difficult choices, but representing the will of the community is their duty. We hope they honor that commitment.