Ban on enemy flags likely to be lifted

October 13, 1992|By Donna E. Boller | Donna E. Boller,Staff Writer

Westminster City Council members publicly agonized before taking the first step last night toward eliminating a regulation that bars demonstrators or marchers from displaying flags of nations at war with the United States.

The council settled the issue primarily on pragmatic considerations -- City Attorney John B. Walsh Jr.'s cautious advice that he could try to rewrite the ordinance to keep the flag ban and still make it fit new Supreme Court rulings, but with no guarantees it would hold up, and the potential cost of losing a lawsuit and possibly being ordered to pay the other side's legal fees.

Mayor W. Benjamin Brown and Council President William F. Haifley led the argument for having Mr. Walsh rewrite the city law so it could be retained.

No council member opposed them philosophically, but the majority of the five-member council cited cost and the likelihood of losing in court.

The changes were proposed in response to comments by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland on city laws barring demonstrators or parade marchers from displaying flags of nations with which the U.S. has broken off diplomatic relations or is at war. That section of the city's law is clearly unconstitutional, the ACLU advised.

Council members voiced no objection to eliminating the ban on flags from nations with which the U.S. does not have diplomatic relations.

But the constitutional problem with the war provision is that the city ordinance doesn't specify nations that Congress has declared war on, Mr. Walsh advised. If it did, he said, displaying those flags might be seen as giving aid and comfort to the enemy, which would allow the city to bar the displays.

Councilman Stephen R. Chapin Sr. said cost and the prospect of losing lawsuits were major factors for him. Given recent Supreme Court rulings, he said, "It's going to cost us a lot of money and I think there's a very small chance of us winning" a lawsuit.

Mayor Brown said cost shouldn't count.

"The issue of cost is unfair [to raise] because we're dealing with areas of importance," he said.

The prospective ordinance changes also include dropping a section that allows the city to require parade sponsors to post bonds. That section is probably unconstitutional because it gives city officials discretion on whether to apply the bond requirement, the State Attorney General's office has said.

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