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Ed LaVigne

Prompted by a request to fly a LGBTQ flag in front of the Town hall to celebrate Pride Month this month, the Lansing Town Board struggled to come up with an objective policy that would allow positive, supportive messages while preventing hate groups from being permitted to fly their own flags there.  Board members said they wanted to support all Lansing citizens, but were concerned about possible liability if one group's flag were approved and another denied.

"How do we go about this and protect the Town?" asked Lansing Supervisor Ed LaVigne "If you do it for one how do you do it for the other.  To me it's not about this issue, it's about the policy.  If we come up with a policy that is generic and concise, how do we go about that so that we show we are a loving, caring, inclusive community?  If we allow it for one, I don't want a hate group come in and say 'we want to put our flag up also'."

"You're treading into those same sticky first amendment issues that came up in relation to how you determine whether someone qualifies or doesn't qualify for a peddling permit," said Lansing Town Attorney Guy Krogh. "If you're going to allow Group A to fly their flag, but not Group B, whats the basis for the distinction?  Is it the message?  Are you regulating actual speech that the flag is intended to convey, or is there some objective, rational basis for the distinction that is not simply based on 'I support what they're saying, and I'm against what they are saying'.  If it's down to that they you're actually regulating speech."

Last year the Town repealed its pedaling ordinance because of the same kinds of  issues.  After considering a new policy they could not come to grips with what kind of solicitation is permissible, and, without its own police force, the Town doesn't have a viable way to enforce it.  By repealing an out of date soliciting ordinance that had been on the books since 1966, the Town deferred to Tompkins County's soliciting law, which falls within the Sheriff's jurisdiction.

Krogh also warned that a flag policy could be construed as creating a public forum on public grounds.  He noted that certain municipal areas such as sidewalks or a community center are places where a public forum is created.  But they are municipally owned places that a Town allows groups to use for private purposes, not public purposes.

"If you're going to approve Flag A and not approve Flag B, I'd like to know what the basis for that determination is going to be so that you're not walking headlong into the next case that makes the headlines," he warned.

Town Flag PolicyLocal LGBTQ residents want to fly their flag in front of the Town Hall to celebrate Pride Week. But town officials are afraid that if they support groups like this with positive messages they will be forced to support hate groups as well.

LaVigne asked Krogh whether a flagpole is considered an extension of a public forum area.

"I really wouldn't want to hazard a guess as to what a flagpole is in terms of speech," Krogh said.  "But if you're going to conduct speech under the flagpole beyond that which is mandated by law, such as the State or the US flag, I would like to see something that says you are making the decisions on a content-neutral basis, not a message basis."

LaVigne talked about another way to send a similar message.  The 'Hate Has No Home Here' movement is a national initiative to bring attention to intolerance of intolerance.  LaVigne showed the Board yard signs that he said can be displayed by individuals.  The initiative was brought to Lansing by participants in the monthly Interfaith Dinners, in cooperation with a Cornell student who is involved with the movement.  LaVigne said the signs are being distributed for free at the Lansing United Methodist Church.

"They're not political," he said. "It doesn't mean Republican or Democrat -- they just have different colors, that's all.  They're free."

"This sign is a public declaration that hate speech and hateful actions against others will not be tolerated by the person or organization displaying the sign," the 'Hate Has No Home Here' Web site declares. "In that, it is non-partisan. This sign is a statement that, while it is okay to disagree with others civilly regarding issues, it is not okay to intimidate or attack a person or group—verbally or physically—based on attributes such as gender, ethnic origin, religion, race, disability, or sexual orientation. The colors of the sign—red, white, and blue—are the colors of the American flag, not any political party."

LaVigne asked about other areas where banners are displayed, such as the banners that often appear near the Lansing Community library on town property.  He asked whether the Town could permit the banners on a case by case basis.  But the discussion kept coming back to adhering to a law or policy that does not discriminate between philosophies, no mater how heinous one might be, while somehow avoiding the repulsive ones.

"Could it be something where the Town recognizes a particular celebratory month of some sort that has cultural relation to the Town?" Krogh asked. "I think you're getting awfully close to that subjective standard, but at least there you'd have the Board saying we've approved this and that's why it's there. There's got to be an approved list somewhere that can tell us whether a reasonable number of flags are usable without us making a content-based, subjective, allegedly discriminatory opinion.  That would be a place to start.  What flags have been approved by a nationally recognized organizations like the US government, the State of New York, the United Nations..."

LaVigne said that it may come down to saying that the Town tried to come up with a policy, but was unable to without making the Town legally vulnerable.  He said he wanted to consider some form of policy at the next meeting, which is scheduled for June 20th.

"That does not mean that we don't like that, but perhaps a sign like this sends the same message," he said. "As a Town we should try to address and say we have exhausted our resources trying to do this and we found out that we may not be able to do this, this, and this, but we are showing support to the idea that we are anti-hate.  And if you think you are a hate target we do not support that one bit."

Councilwoman Katrina Binkewicz said she would like to consider a broader policy that covers other town-owned properties.

"Even if we don't use the municipal flag pole we need some sort of policy, even for the park," she said. "Because certain flags cause people to have fear.  It goes back to the message that if you symbol is about putting down or excluding we can't hang it in a public area."

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