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Supreme Court Holds that Boston Violated First Amendment

by Refusing to Fly Christian Group’s Flag
July 13, 2022

In May the United States Supreme Court ruled that the city of Boston violated the First Amendment of the United States Constitution when it had allowed various other private groups’ flags to fly at City Hall but refused to fly a Christian group’s flag, in the case of Shurtleff v. City of Boston. In doing so, the Court ruled that the city discriminated against the Christian group based on its religious viewpoint. 

The takeaway from this case is that if a municipality wants to have more control as to which flags fly on their property, it must establish that its flag flying is government speech. This is because, at its base, the First Amendment limits government regulation of private speech, but not what the government itself can say. Therefore, where a municipality has firmly established a forum of government speech, it can reject others’ speech based on its content and viewpoint. Government speech is established through three factors, viewed holistically: the history of the speech/forum at issue, the public’s perception of the speech, and whether the municipality has actively controlled and shaped the speech. One way to actively control speech is, for example, to adopt a flag flying policy.  

Lisa Soronen, Executive Director of the State & Local Legal Center provides a summary of the case below. 

Case Summary: Boston Loses Third-Party Flag SCOTUS Case 

In Shurtleff v. City of Boston the U.S. Supreme Court held unanimously that Boston's refusal to fly a Christian flag on a flagpole outside city hall violated the First Amendment.  

On the plaza, near Boston City Hall entrance, stand three 83-foot flagpoles. Boston flies the American flag on one (along with a banner honoring prisoners of war and soldiers missing in action) and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts flag on the other. On the third it usually flies Boston's flag.  

Since 2005 Boston has allowed third parties to fly flags during events held in the plaza. Most flags are of other countries, marking the national holidays of Bostonians' many countries of origin. Third-party flags have also been flown for Pride Week, emergency medical service workers, and a community bank.  

When Camp Constitution asked to fly a Christian flag Boston refused, for the first time ever, citing Establishment Clause concerns. The flag has a red cross on a blue field against a white background. Camp Constitution sued arguing that Boston opens its flagpole for citizens to express their views in which case it can't refuse to fly Camp Constitution's flag based on its (religious) viewpoint. Boston argued it "reserved the pole to fly flags that communicate governmental messages" and was "free to choose the flags it flies without the constraints of the First Amendment's Free Speech Clause."  

The Supreme Court held that Boston's flag-raising program doesn't constitutes government speech, meaning the First Amendment applies and it couldn't reject Camp Constitution's flag based on its viewpoint. Justice Breyer, writing for the majority, noted that "[t]he boundary between government speech and private expression can blur when, as here, a government invites the people to participate in a program." Conducting a "holistic inquiry" which considered "the history of the expression at issue; the public's likely perception as to who (the government or a private person) is speaking; and the extent to which the government has actively shaped or controlled the expression," he didn't find government speech.  

According to the Court the "general history" of flying flags "particularly at the seat of government" favors Boston. But "even if the public would ordinarily associate a flag's message with Boston, that is not necessarily true for the flags at issue here" where "Boston allowed its flag to be lowered and other flags to be raised with some regularity." While neither of these two factors resolved the case, Boston's record of not "actively control[ling] these flag raisings and shap[ing] the messages the flags sent" was "the most salient feature of this case." Boston had "no written policies or clear internal guidance-about what flags groups could fly and what those flags would communicate."