Here's how it happened.
REDLANDS, Calif. - The rainbow pride flag will not fly at Redland's City Hall during Pride month for the first time in two years. In May, a divided City Council changed course and voted against flying the flag to support the LGBTQ+ community.
The City Council questioned whether the flag pole should be used beyond the designated government flags. Here's a look at what led to the recent City Council vote and how "government speech" influenced their decision. Plus, how other communities decide which flags to fly on public flag poles.
A timeline of the pride flag in Redlands
June 2021 - The pride flag first flew over Redlands' City Hall in June 2021. This came after Mayor Eddie Tejeda asked city staff to look into purchasing and flying a rainbow flag at City Hall for Pride month. A council member at the time, Tejeda told his colleagues during the June 15, 2021 city council meeting that he was inspired by a social media post asking why the pride flag was not flown in Redlands. There was no vote by City Council on whether to fly the rainbow flag in 2021.
June 2022 - A year later, Council Member Denise Davis formally requested City Council approve the pride flag flying at City Hall in June. Additionally, Davis brought a motion to ask city staff to revise the current flag policy to include the rainbow pride flag. At that time, the City's flag policy only included the US, state, local, and MIA/POW flags to fly on city poles.
During the June 21, 2022, meeting, City Council voted 4-1 to approve flying the rainbow flag for the remainder of the month and directed city staff to revise the policy. Former Council Member Mick Gallagher cast the only dissenting vote.
March 2023 - A resolution was brought before the City Council to officially add the pride flag to the list of approved flags to fly on City flagpoles. According to the city's attorney, the City Council can choose which flags to fly on city property as a form of “government speech,” as long as the flag does not promote a religion or try to make people vote a certain way.
During this meeting, City Council was split over whether to change the city's flag policy to include the rainbow flag.
Mayor Pro Tem Paul Barich and Council Member Mario Saucedo opposed the change. Both council members were concerned that changing the flag policy could open the door to other flag requests.
Tejeda and Davis supported changing the flag policy as a show of support and solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community.
Council Member Jenna Guzman-Lowery was not present at the meeting. Reaching a tie vote, City Council agreed to wait until the full council would be together again in May.
A question of government speech
The city attorney opened the discussion about the City flag policy at the May 2, 2023 City Council meeting. The city attorney explained that under current policy, the City's flag poles are reserved for "government speech." This means that the City Council can decide which flags are flown. They do not have to entertain third-party requests.
The city attorney explained that if the City Council were to entertain outside requests, the flag pole could become a public forum.
To keep the flag poles limited to government speech, the City Council was advised to list the flags they chose within the flag policy.
“By allowing the rainbow Pride flag to be flown as a government speech, it would not open up the flag poles to a risk that third parties may want to put their own flags on the flag pole," City Attorney Yvette Abich Garcia explained to the City Council.
How the Council Voted
The City Council voted 3-2 against adding the rainbow pride flag to the City’s flag policy. The current policy includes the US, state, local, and POW/MIA flags.
Votes in favor
In supporting the change to the flag policy, Davis and Guzman-Lowery said the move would align with the decisions the City Council had made in the past.
Davis recapped many of the pubic comments made in support of flying the Pride flag at City Hall. Davis highlighted that the policy is not unprecedented since the pride flag is flown in many government buildings, including the California State Capitol.
Davis also reminded her colleagues that flying the Pride flag aligns with the city's strategic plan, naming equity and inclusion as priorities.
“This is about what so many community members said, wanting to be seen and valued by their City. At its core, it’s about ‘safety, togetherness, community, and hope,’” explained Davis.
Guzman-Lowery said she supports flying the Pride flag because it's an opportunity for the City to express "progress, care, and support for our communities."
"As our city attorney has mentioned, a flag pole is a tool for government speech… it sends a message to vulnerable members in our community that they're welcome here, and that matters," said Guzman-Lowery.
Barich and Saucedo maintained their position from the March meeting in opposition to an amendment to the flag policy. Both expressed their support for the LBGTQ+ community but said they did not want to use city flag poles to express their support.
Saucedo spoke to audience members who supported changing the flag policy, "I just want to acknowledge that I see you, I acknowledge you, I hear you, and I accept everybody." He went on to say he supports what the pride flag represents and suggested businesses and homes take the opportunity to fly it.
Barich and Saucedo both argued the current set of flags is representative of all members of the community.
“I think we should stay consistent, stay very neutral and stay with the…flags we fly right now,” Barich explained in casting his no-vote.
Tejeda announced he would be changing his vote for different reasons. He was not convinced of the legality of flying the pride flag at City Hall.
"I don't make decisions because I'm emotional one way or another," said Tejeda, raising concerns with a recent Supreme Court ruling over local flag policy (Shurtleff v. City of Boston).
Tejeda said the part of the ruling that states "viewpoint neutrality" is not required when the government itself is the speaker opens up the possibility that future City Councils would misuse the policy.
He also expressed concerns that the city would be at a greater risk for "frivolous lawsuits" if the Council approved amendments to the flag policy.
During public comment, 22 people supported amending the existing flag policy to include the Pride flag to fly in June. Supporters urged the City Council to follow other cities in promoting inclusion.
Eight people were opposed to amending the current flag policy. Those speakers felt straying away from government flags would be divisive and show a preference for one group.
Other cities grapple with public flag policy
In recent years, the flying of the Pride flag at government buildings, particularly City Halls, has become a subject of debate.
The same day that Redlands City Council decided against flying the Pride flag, neighboring Riverside approved a list of commemorative flags to fly at City Hall. Included in the list is the rainbow Pride flag.
The Riverside City Council voted in favor of a recommendation made by the City's Human Relations Commission to fly nine flags at city hall:
- Dr. Martin Luther King Day (the third Monday in January)
- International Holocaust Remembrance Day (January 27)
- Black History Month (February)
- Women's History Month or Women's Suffrage Victory (March)
- Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month (May)
- LGBTQ Pride Month (June)
- Juneteenth (June 19)
- Latino/a Heritage Month
- Indigenous Peoples Day (October) or Native American Heritage Month (November)
The City of Carlsbad also recently considered a motion to allow commemorative flags at City Hall. However, its measure failed 3-2 over concerns that it would be costly and time-consuming for the City to manage.
Earlier this year, the City of Huntington Beach reversed course on raising the Pride flag above city hall. In a 4-3 vote, the Huntington Beach City Council changed its 2021 decision to fly the Pride flag each June and put new limits on which flags can fly on city flagpoles.
The Pride flag as government speech
Some argue that such displays are political in nature and should not be endorsed by governments. However, when considering the concept of government speech and the precedent set by the recent Supreme Court case Shurtleff v. City of Boston, it becomes clear that flying the Pride flag at City Hall can be viewed as a form of government speech.
The concept of government speech refers to instances where the government expresses its own viewpoint rather than providing a forum for private expression. The Court ruled that when the government has a clear policy in place, the City Council can advance its own speech without requiring "viewpoint neutrality."
In practice, that means that City Council can choose which commemorative flags to fly or not to fly, as long as it does not promote religion, encourage voting in a certain way or violate state or federal law.
When the government speaks for itself through flag-flying, it cannot also entertain third-party requests. Opening up the flag pole to applications from outside groups turns it into a forum for private expression, protected by the First Amendment.
Following the logic established in Shurtleff, flying the Pride flag at City Hall can be considered a government speech expressing its support for and solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community.
This past May, Redlands City Council chose not to speak in support of the LGBTQ+ community by reversing their 2021 decision to fly the Pride flag.
On Tuesday, June 6, the Redlands City Council will issue a proclamation recognizing June as LGBTQ+ Pride Month.