WHITMAN – Sometimes a singe individual can create an issue where there hadn’t been one before – for example, poet Amanda Gorman’s Biden inaugural poem, “The Hill We Climb,” was pulled from Miami-Dade, Florida schools following a single challenge to its “appropriateness,” the latest ban of literature and history books in that state’s schools.
Whitman town officials have, in the past year, received a complaint about small pride flags, bought with an employee’s own money, to decorate flower boxes at the Council on Aging as a signal for LGBTQ elders who may have no support elsewhere, that they are welcome.
Now a request from Whitman Pride to has moved Town Counsel to advise that the town form a policy on flag displays and painted sidewalks to remove any problems from the approval process for either.
“We’re not saying no, we’re saying we need a process,” Select Board Chair Dr. Carl Kowalski said.
The Select Board voted on Tuesday, May 23, to refer the matter to the By-Law Committee, after members have a chance to ask questions of Town Counsel prior to its next meeting – on June 20. While that may be too late to hinge a sidewalk painting project planned at Whitman Public Library on the annual June Pride Month activities for the LGTBQ+ community, it is a project proponents wish to advance.
Town Administrator Mary Beth Carter said Kathleen Evans had reached out to the library about painting portions of the sidewalk in rainbow colors for Pride Month – at the side entrance to the building and a small area at the front.
“It’s something that has not been requested before and I just think that maybe it should go for a by-law[ revision],” she said.
Because of a recent Supreme Court decision involving the City of Boston and its flag displays at City Hall, after a private Christian group demanded it’s flag be placed there in response to a Pride flag. Boston receives more than 280 requests for flag displays a year, but that application was the only one rejected.
Justice Stephen G. Breyer, writing for six members of the court, said the central question in the case, Shurtleff v. City of Boston, No. 20-1800, was whether the city had created a public forum by allowing private groups to use its flagpole or was conveying its own speech by choosing and endorsing the flags it approved.
“All told, while the historical practice of flag flying at government buildings favors Boston, the city’s lack of meaningful involvement in the selection of flags or the crafting of their messages leads us to classify the flag raisings as private, not government, speech — though nothing prevents Boston from changing its policies going forward,” Breyer wrote last year.
That is why Whitman’s legal counsel advised that the town institute a policy for flag or painted sidewalk displays before taking any action on the current application.
Select Board Chair Dr. Carl Kowalski said he has spoken to Town Counsel about the matter.
“It appears to me that displaying the flag – no matter what flag it is – and to paint a crosswalk, no matter what kind of designation the cause is – this has nothing to do with what is planned to be painted [at the library],” he said. “It would mean that, in the future, we would have to approve everything. Anything. It could be KKK or the [Proud] Boys, and so I thought we should be cautious on it.”
Counsel Michelle McNulty opined that, since the town does not have a policy governing crosswalk painting or flag display approval process, the town needs to have one in place before the board takes any action on any request, to protect both the town and applicants.
Kowalski suggested the matter be passed to the By-Law Committee without discussion, but as Kathleen Evans’ wish to explain her project was granted – that meant Select Board member Justin Evans, who is her husband, had to leave the room.
Select Board member Shawn Kain expressed concern over passing it to the By-Law Committee without being able to ask questions of town counsel first.
“It would be helpful to have some guidance from counsel here, because the massage I [got] as a lay person reading these documents, I thought it said if you don’t explicitly have a by-law, which states how we fly flags and that kind of stuff, then you can’t really restrict because if you restrict one, you should be restricting others,” Kain said. “There was some ambiguity about it.”
He stressed it was not the cause that caused his concern.
‘I think it’s a cool imitative, I think it’s cool for Pride Month,” he said. “I’d like to support it, but obviously I don’t want to go against what’s recommended by counsel.”
He asked if there was a way to expedite the request.
Kathleen Evans said ideally the project was intended to be done in time for Pride Month in June, but it could be done in a different month. She said that, if it paves the way for other Pride displays in town, it would be worthwhile to have the By-Law Committee create a policy.
“I’m not comfortable with Justin having to leave,” Kain said.
“She said he has to remove himself from the room, because he could affect it just by being here – and he’s an imposing figure,” Kowalski quipped. “Just by being here he could affect what goes on in the room.”
Kathleen Evans said she and a group got together last year to do the sidewalk project as an inclusive project, and that other South Shore communities, such as Hingham have done similar projects in the past year alone.
“It seemed like it would be really feasible and the library expressed interest in doing it,” she said. “I think inclusivity is important and this would be a really cool way to get people involved in a project that would last.”
Kowalski said he totally agreed with the project and the reason behind it, but the town had to “make sure we don’t open the path for people who aren’t as interested in sensitivity to other people.”
Rosemary Connolly, of Franklin Street, asked if some of the groups like the Proud Boys that Kowalski had mentioned, would be covered under hate speech regulations.
“I really think we need something in writing,” he said. “I was just using those [groups] as an example.”