A city council in Michigan has voted to remove almost all flags from its chambers in city hall, including those representing inclusion, tolerance, and justice.
At its August 27 meeting, the Ypsilanti City Council voted 5-2 in favor of a resolution to remove LGBTQ+ and Trans Pride flags from its chambers, as well as Black Lives Matter banners. According to the resolution, the council was concerned the flags could pose a "First Amendment" problem. Their concern was that other groups, acting in bad faith, might demand that symbols of intolerance and exclusion be hung around the chamber as well, such as a confederate flag.
Refusing that request, members opined, could open the city up to lawsuits.
Council members explained that they didn't want their chambers to promote any particular ideology, although they made exceptions for those representing the ideologies of the United States of America, the state of Michigan, and the city of Ypsilanti.
Members and city staff were also vocal in their support for LGBTQ+ constituents, explaining that the resolution was an unfortunate necessity.
"If you allow one group to protest or advance their idea by hanging a flag, then you have to have a very good reason for now allowing another group to do it," City Attorney John Barr said, as the local newspaper Eastern Echo was the first to report. "If you allow one group to do it and you say no to another group and for whatever reason they don't like it, then we have to defend that in court and that would be a hard case to defend."
Fearing the repercussions of taking a stand in support of inclusion, Councilman Anthony Morgan added, "I think to stay out of hot water, it would be best to put our agendas and personal ties ... aside to do our municipal work."
Flag-related issues have been a headache for other cities as well. Since 2017, the city of Boston has been struggling with various groups that want to force the city to display religious flags. Courts have ruled that the city is within its rights to deny the request, since government speech is held to a different standard under the First Amendment.
Boston officials pointed to a policy prohibiting non-secular symbols on city-owned flagpoles. Constitutional law has established a precedent, dating back to cases from the 1970s, that the government does not need to remain neutral in its own speech.
Nevertheless, the litigation in Boston has been lengthy and convoluted, and it's likely that a similar challenge in Ypsilanti would be a significant drain on resources.
Council member Jennifer Symanns recalled her struggle growing up LGBTQ+ with little support and reluctantly supported the resolution. "Being that we support diversity and inclusion and equity, it would be hard to say no [to any other group]," she said. "I don't know exactly where to draw the line."
"We are simply trying to find a way to make sure we are inclusive and representative to all," added council member Nicole Brown.
The only dissenting votes came from Mayor Beth Bashert and council member Annie Somerville. "I don't have an issue with cluttering the room representing things that people in our community care about," Somerville said, responding to arguments that the flags contributed to visual clutter and could present a fire hazard.