Editorial: Hartford is right to give banners due consideration

An example of the

An example of the "Hometown Heroes" banners proposed for downtown White River Junction, Vt., that was part of the Hartford Selectboard's agenda package. (Courtesy Town of Hartford)

Published: 05-10-2024 10:00 PM

Modified: 05-12-2024 4:57 PM

Some supporters of the Hometown Heroes project seem exasperated that the Hartford Selectboard wants to have a policy in place to regulate display of banners in town before deciding on their application. We think that to the contrary, if any sign should guide the board in this matter, it is “Proceed with caution.”

The Hometown Heroes project seeks to celebrate the contributions of a selection of individual military veterans and first-responders who are current or former Hartford residents. This would be done by displaying banners bearing their images and service dates on up to 12 town-owned light poles from Memorial Day through Veterans Day.

The board is considering a draft policy to govern future such requests before taking up the Hometown Heroes application, which in effect has put the project on hold. This has not sat entirely well. As our colleague Patrick Adrian reported, at a recent Selectboard meeting resident Susanne Abetti commented that, “I feel like this policy is an excuse to try to stymie the banner project.”

Her impatience is perhaps understandable, but complex issues need to be sorted out here, and the Selectboard is wise to take its time to do so. One is the duration of the display. With banners on them, the light poles in effect become part of the public square for expressive speech; to allow one message to monopolize that space for nearly six months at the expense of other messages strikes many as unreasonable. The draft policy sets a 30-day limit on displays at any one time, and 60 days within a calendar year, which makes a lot of sense from a fairness point of view. But does a display of that length justify the expense of purchasing and installing the banners?

Which leads to another question. Adrian reported that in 2022 the Selectboard set aside $2,000 for the Hometown Heroes project. The project chairman, Dennis Brown, told the board that that money will be used to buy the banner materials this year, and his committee will seek donations from local businesses in the future. Given this precedent, does the board plan to subsidize the banner displays of other groups in the future?

More problematic still is the draft’s policy statement, which includes the following: “All third-party requests to fly banners shall be reviewed and approved by the Town Selectboard, based on a finding that such proposed banners represent or promote local, not-for-profit or cultural civic organizations, events or activities of particular interest or benefit to the greater Hartford community. Banners shall not be used for commercial advertising or to advertise or promote political candidates, parties or issues. The Hartford Selectboard shall have the authority to refuse the hanging of banners which do not benefit the community at large” or meet the specifications enumerated elsewhere in the policy.

Selectboard member Kim Souza explained that this escape clause “is mainly there as a layer of protection, in case anyone comes forward with a proposal for Confederate or Nazi insignia or other things that the board could consider inappropriate or not in the best interest of the town.”

It’s understandable that the board would like to preserve the option to disallow messaging it considers offensive. But this provision invests in the Selectboard considerable authority to regulate banners according to a subjective and vague standard of what “benefits the community at large,” about which reasonable people can surely differ.

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There’s also the question of whether this standard would pass constitutional muster. The issue is complicated, but as we understand it, the U.S. Supreme Court has placed narrow limits on the type of content that can be excluded from public display through government regulations; and it is particularly adamant that the government is not free to draw distinctions among applicants based on the viewpoint expressed. Perhaps that is an issue that the town’s legal team has addressed, but if not, it should.

It’s also the case that celebrating the contributions of military veterans might not be construed in all circles in town as an apolitical statement, or one that benefits the community at large. We wonder whether the Selectboard wants to enter into this fraught arena at a time of national division, trying to figure out, for example, whether an LGBTQ Pride banner would constitute a prohibited political statement or an allowable cultural message, and whether it would benefit the whole community. The same could be said of many other kinds of possible banners, for example ones extolling the contributions of Christianity to the community. Or Judaism. Or Islam.

Maybe this all will be ironed out before the Selectboard gets together May 14 to renew its policy discussion. In any case, it’s more than worth whatever time it takes to work out the answers to these questions.