SOUTH PORTLAND – The city council may implement new speech policies as they relate to South Portland’s city buses, flag poles and crosswalks.

Councilors on May 11 said they would be in favor of a new bus service advertising policy. Advertisements have been displayed inside and outside of city buses since the early 1980s, and for more than 20 years, the city has used a broker to manage advertising, according to information from city manager Scott Morelli.

“The proposed policy establishes uniform, viewpoint-neutral standards for the display of advertising on the interior and exterior of bus service buses (and to not allow advertising in bus stops, shelters, and buildings),” Morelli said.

Among the new policies is a list of prohibited advertising on items that include nudity, unlawful conduct, alcohol or firearms and political speech campaign.

Councilor Kate Lewis proposed adding pharmaceuticals to the list of 18 prohibited types of advertising.

“In the advertising policy, I wonder if we could include pharmaceuticals as additional to the 18 — mostly because some of them have the potential to be habit-forming, and I just don’t think we need to use our public space to advertise pharmaceuticals in any shape,” Lewis said.

Other councilors said they agreed with this possible prohibition, and Sally Daggett, corporation counsel, said she would look into whether or not this addition is viable.

Daggett said the policies relate to at least one of the three types of public forums: traditional, designated and non-public, adding that the city wants the bus advertisement policy to fall under the non-public forum category. This would allow South Portland to have control of content as long as it’s neutral.

“We have to be really careful to make sure that whatever regulation the city adopts conform with the first amendment analysis,” Daggett said.

Councilors also spoke in favor of policy drafts for artistic crosswalks and displays of flag poles.

South Portland Public Works crews paint a crosswalk in rainbow colors. The city ordered three crosswalks painted in this fashion to recognize Pride Month. Courtesy / City of South Portland

“In celebration of #PrideMonth, South Portland has re-painted a handful of crosswalks to the colors of the rainbow,” said the city of South Portland in June of 2020.  Catherine Bart/Sentry

An example of artistic crosswalks would be when the city painted a select few crosswalks in temporary rainbow colors to symbolize Pride Month last June. This was done at a time when the Public Works department was repainting other crosswalks, said Councilor Katelyn Bruzgo.

The drafted flag poles’ policy states, “The City’s flagpoles are not intended to serve as a forum for free expression by the public. The City will not display a ceremonial or commemorative flag based on a request from a third party, nor will the City use its flagpoles to sponsor the expression of a third party. Ceremonial or commemorative flags shall be displayed only as an expression of the city’s official sentiments as evidenced by majority vote of the members of the city council.”

Lewis said she was in favor of flag displays being decided by a supermajority of the council, meaning that five councilors would need to vote in favor of a flag display instead of the usual four-councilor majority.

“We’re moving into this territory now where this was just once, the American flag, the state of Maine flag, the city flag and now we’re talking about other flags, and I don’t want to create a situation where 43 percent of the people are alienated or feel like they’re not represented,” she said.

Other councilors said they disagree, Councilor Deqa Dhalac adding that the flags often display support for oppressed groups.

“I think we should not use supermajority because there are people really oppressed and we need to lift them up,” Dhalac said.

Councilor April Caricchio said any opposition to a display could open a conversation.

“We really want to use the optics that we can and we want to use government speech to lift up the citizens that may feel alienated,” Caricchio said. “And if that feels threatening people who are in the vast majority, then that’s something they’re going to have to figure out, and maybe it will be a great way to have a conversation.”

The council’s meetings are typically busy and Mayor Misha Pride said that he believes councilors will not bring forward different flag displays too often.

“Honestly, I’m hoping councilors use discretion when deciding to bring a flag order forward,” Pride said. “I would hope councilors would use our discretion about which flags to bring forward in the first place, how often we do it.”

The policy proposals will be brought forward to a future city council meeting for approval to be implemented.

Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: