WHITMAN — How can the town balance its traditional July 4 Family Field Day with the free speech tenets on which the nation was founded and are celebrated on that day?
The Recreation Commission will be working with Selectmen in an effort to draft regulations outlining what type of political campaign activities are to be permitted at family events it sponsors in Whitman Park. Any such guidelines will be reviewed by town counsel.
On July 4, the issue boiled over at the annual event as area candidates — who had been asked to keep their presence limited to wearing shirts and/or badges and handing out leaflets — “got out of control,” according to Recreation Director Oliver Amado.
“I was contacted by several political parties, including my own party, regarding the Family Fourth event,” Amado told Selectmen Tuesday, July 10. “Basically, they originally wanted to put big signs up and everything and I told them that this was a family fun day, it’s never been used as a political event.”
Amado asked that they operate on the “Geoff Diehl approach” of setting up a table with their families and offering watermelon slices or other such refreshments without overtly campaigning.
“Most of the time you couldn’t tell that he was a candidate,” Amado said.
“He was just being there,” said Selectmen Chairman Dr. Carl Kowalski, who later noted he had initially agreed with the request that candidates limit their role, but then changed his mind. “It’s a freedom of speech issue, it’s a freedom of assembly issue and I couldn’t see any other way around it,” he said.
“[Diehl] was just being there,” Amado said. “And that’s what I wanted and that’s what I asked. I never banned anyone from coming down.” He was trying to avoid a rally atmosphere with big signs and banners.
“That’s what happened and it got out of control quickly,” Amado said, adding that interference from the campaigns forced cancellation of two contests because of the time delay.
The incident led to a debate on social media about what kind of electioneering is proper at such “family events,” officials said.
Town Administrator Frank Lynam said he had received a call on Monday, July 2 from former U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan, whose daughter is a candidate for the seat he once held, complaining that she was not being permitted to canvass at the July 4 Field Day.
Lynam called Town Counsel Michelle McNulty for guidance and to Amado for more information. He had to leave a message with McNulty, who returned Lynam’s call on Tuesday, July 3.
“I did have some concerns about our ability to limit those types of events,” Lynam said about his call to McNulty. “She agreed with my belief that speech is protected, that the park is a public place and people can attend these public events … wear campaign buttons, they can wear shirts, they can hand out leaflets.”
He underscored the Recreation Department’s concern that the event “is and always has been a family event” and past requests against conducting political activities has been respected.
“The directive was advised by me to not prevent any political candidates from attending, wearing their shirts, handing out leaflets or otherwise engaging people during the event,” Lynam said, explaining that decision was based on First Amendment considerations.
McNulty issued an opinion on the situation, which states political speech is protected in public places where there is no perceived cause to restrain it.
“When I was contacted, the issue was very narrow,” said McNulty, who attended the July 10 meeting. “The issue was, ‘Can we prohibit the candidates from being present at the town park during this event? Can we tell them they can’t wear campaign shirts or buttons or have leaflets?’ My answer to that was a narrow response that it is a public forum, that you cannot prohibit free speech in a public forum — you can have reasonable time, place and manner restrictions that are applicable to everybody regardless of affiliation.”
rally vs. forum
She said the issue was never presented as an intent to hold a rally, have balloons, tables or microphones.
“There is a difference between a political rally and just being present in an open forum … wearing a shirt that says anything on it,” she said. “I was frankly taken quite aback when I heard what had occurred, as well. … We all learn from incidents like this.”
The main issue that made the difference for McNulty was that it happened in a public park.
“It seems that something got lost in translation somewhere along the line,” she said.
Amado had explained that the candidates had been set up in a shaded area off to one side away from the contests and picnic tables and they were asked to place banners to face the street or take the signs down. By the time the bike and carriage decoration contest was over, “the signs came out — the big banner, bigger than a station wagon came out — and next thing you know, we had four or five of this particular group’s entourage rushing our area, handing out balloons to the kids and preventing us from kicking off on time,” he said. “Once they pulled out their signs, all the candidates pulled out their signs.”
Some residents at the event tried to prevent the candidates from interfering with it, according to Amado. Candidates were also asking Recreation Department staff, as well as Donnie Westhaver’s family who were DJ-ing the event, for use of their microphones to address the crowd. The candidates were refused.
Selectman Randy LaMattina said his concern was that the Recreation Commission had a plan in place to deal with the situation that “absolutely protected the First Amendment,” but preserving the integrity of a family event was paramount.
“This seems to be an ongoing thing … that decisions are being made without this board,” LaMattina said. “And this board is the elected chief executive officers of the town.”
Kowalski said he found it ironic that on Independence Day, “by which freedom of assembly, as well as freedom of speech is to be celebrated [that] people were asked to curtail their speech and to curtail the way they assemble.”
Selectman Dan Salvucci had been in the office signing warrants July 2 when Assistant Town Administrator Lisa Green fielded Amado’s first call and was relaying Amado’s questions to him.
“I told her that, personally, it’s a family fun day — it’s a children’s day — I said we’ve always had people handing out watermelon or things like that because it’s a family fun day, but no big political signs,” Salvucci said.
Selectman Brian Bezanson was blunt in his criticism of the behavior of all candidates, noting that both the Republican and Democratic town committees have long had an unwritten agreement “not to pull this kind of stuff.”
“Just because it’s legal, doesn’t make it right,” he said. “As the chairman of the Republican Town Committee, I’m very disappointed, because I know what this event is and I know how hard the Recreation Commission works to put it together. … To have a family fun day literally ruined because of partisanship and political asperations, I find it disgusting.”
In other business, Lynam said Bridgewater State University professor Dr. Melinda Tarsi has provided more information concerning the planned community assessment survey. The next step will be a meeting of stakeholders to begin formulating questions to be included in that survey.
A list of those stakeholders will be prepared by the board’s next meeting on July 24.
“Sounds like she is expecting a large group of stakeholders,” Kowalski said. “She said we could use Bridgewater State if we didn’t have enough space here.”
“I’d like to think we’d get that kind of response,” Lynam said.