Westwood Select Board to Consider Codifying a Flag Policy in April


Photo by Westwood Minute/Darlene Wong Cancell. The United States flag hangs from lamp posts on Westwood's High Street on September 22, 2023.

Westwood Select Board is considering codifying a flag policy with a vote as early as April 1, 2024, according Select Board Chair Marianne LeBlanc Cummings, who led a very brief discussion of the topic at the board’s remotely convened meeting in mid-March.

The Town of Westwood’s Interim Flag Policy, adopted in June 2023, authorizes only the following official flags to be flown on town-owned flag poles as government speech:

  • United States flag;
  • MIA POW flag;
  • Purple Heart award flag on August 7th of each year; and
  • Pride rainbow flag to be flown temporarily in June 2023.

At Select Board’s meeting this March, Ms. Cummings remarked that after research and investigation into a flag policy, “first and foremost” in adopting a flag policy must be protecting the Town of Westwood from litigation. “I think there are folks who would like to celebrate various groups. I think we all would like to do that, but we don’t want to do so at the cost of creating tensions in the community, things that we’ve seen on national scale,” she said. “So, I think those are real concerns that we have to keep in mind as we work through this, and do what’s best to protect the town.” She noted that Select Board will be receiving comments from residents before its April vote.

Select Board Member Joe Previtera requested that Town Administrator Christopher Coleman post information regarding the flag policy for interested residents to review.

Town Counsel Pat Ahearn offered to a draft a flag policy to discuss at an upcoming Select Board April meeting, which Ms. Cummings accepted.

Robert Gotti, Select Board clerk, observed that other towns with flag flying policies can be grouped into three separate categories:

  • One group of towns flies only the United States flag, POW flag, MIA flag, and Commonwealth of Massachusetts flags.
  • A second group of towns reviews applicant requests to fly other flags on town property.
  • A third group of towns allows only Select Board members or a mayor to request an additional flag.

At this month’s March meeting, Mr. Gotti noted his continued preference for the first category of flag flying, stating that it provides all the protections needed for freedom of speech or expression.

In June 2023, Select Board adopted an Interim Flag Policy by a vote of 2-0, with one abstention.  Ms. Cummings and Mr. Previtera voted in favor, and Mr. Gotti abstained from what he characterized as a premature vote. Mr. Gotti voiced his misgivings about the interim policy that provided temporary approval for flying the Pride flag on town property for June 2023, while no such special approval was permitted for any additional flag.

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The issue of codifying a flag policy was raised by Ms. Cummings last June following a United States Supreme Court ruling in Shurtleff v. City of Boston in May 2023, which found that the City of Boston had discriminated against, and violated the free speech of a citizen and his organization when it rejected their request to fly the Christian flag. The rejection followed the city's prior approval of 284 consecutive applications. The Court distinguished  free speech of private citizens that is Constitutionally protected, which it said those applicant flags represented, from government speech.

The adoption of last June's Interim Flag Policy was an apparent attempt to clarify that flag flying on Town of Westwood property is government speech and not free speech of private citizens. One determinant of whether flag flying on municipal property is government speech appears to be whether the governmental entity exerts control over the flag flying.

You may also be interested in reading:

Pride Flag to Fly at Town Hall for June 2023

- Westwood's Purple Heart Proclamation

- Scouts and Community Attend Flag Burning - but it's a Retirement Ceremony, not a Protest

Westwood Raises Purple Heart Flag Sunday

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