Bedford Select Board Adopts Town Flag and Banner Policy

The Select Board on Monday approved a town-property flag and banner policy. Staff photo by Wayne Braverman

The Select Board on Monday approved a town-property flag and banner policy allowing only the national, commonwealth, and Bedford flags, the national prisoner of war/missing in action flag, and those promoting town events or information. 

According to town counsel, the policy should accommodate a banner recognizing June as Pride Month, which is what sparked the original discussion.

That began six months ago with counsel recommending that Bedford should adopt a policy. That advice followed a Boston court case through which a flag was interpreted as “essentially a public forum for speech, protected by First Amendment.”

“What you do by creating a policy is you say the flags that we raise are government speech, not a public forum,” Attorney Nina Pickering-Cook told the Select Board on Monday. “You all can have more control over what you choose to represent.”

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A request by Bedford Embraces Diversity to display a banner acknowledging Pride Month can be incorporated, the attorney said, if it represents something that the board chooses to support. 

“It’s within your discretion,” Pickering-Cook said. 

The formal position is expected to be addressed on the board’s May 13 agenda.

Board member Emily Mitchell asked how the board defines what is town-sponsored. 

“You can determine what you consider to be town sponsored events,” Pickering-Cook replied.  

Mitchell said that “if we can determine what our sponsorship means, that gives us agency.” 

Board Chair Shawn Hanegan added that the theme should not be designated as a “cause,” since “these are members of our community that we are celebrating.” 

Marilou Barsam, one of the founders of Bedford Embraces Diversity, said the group is asking the board “to really consider what Bedford can do to be more vocal and visible about supporting the LGBTQ+ community.” She said the Bedford High School Parent Diversity Council is also behind the request.

Select Board member Paul Mortenson wanted reassurance that the policy would be legally secure. 

“It is incumbent on you to be diligent in how you apply flexibility in a manner that is legally protected,” Pickering-Cook replied. “The more restrictive you are about what you allow, the more legally protected you are.”

Mortenson expressed support for promoting Pride Month, but also was worried about an application from a hate group. 

“A troublemaker will find a wedge,” he suggested. 

But the attorney said supporting something specific “doesn’t automatically open the floodgates. You can make a reasonable argument why you choose.”

“I don’t want to not do something that is legally defensible because we’re concerned someone is going to be mad at us,” Mitchell said.

Members agreed to omit one component of the draft policy that allowed additional flags or banners by a majority vote. Several members also were disinclined to link flags or banners to board proclamations. 

The vote to adopt was 4-1 with Mortenson opposed. He explained that he felt including the POW/MIA flag at the same level as the national, state, and town flags created an exception.

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