top of page

Unanimous Supreme Court Flies Flag for Free Speech in Case Against City of Boston

Unanimous Supreme Court Flies Flag for Free Speech in Case Against City of Boston

In a rare unanimous ruling on Monday, the Supreme Court secured a major victory for free speech.

In the opinion in Shurtleff v. Boston, authored by retiring Justice Stephen Breyer, the court ruled that the city of Boston violated the Constitution when it prohibited a group from flying a Christian flag on a flagpole it had held open to other groups and their flags.

The court determined that simply by permitting private groups to fly their flags on the City Hall flagpole, the city was not endorsing any message behind those flags and that, therefore, the flag and what it represents did not constitute government speech.

As a result, its refusal to allow a religious group to raise its flag simply because of its religious viewpoint was a violation of the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment.

Boston had historically allowed groups to raise a flag on one of the city’s three flagpoles in conjunction with ceremonies held on the City Hall plaza. Over a period of 12 years, between 2005 and 2017, the city approved the flying of 50 different flags in conjunction with 284 events.

Its unofficial policy was to accommodate all applicants. But when Harold Shurtleff, director of a group called Camp Constitution, asked to fly what he described as a “Christian flag” in conjunction with an event on the plaza celebrating the civic and social contributions of the Christian community, the city denied his request, claiming that flying the flag would violate the Constitution’s Establishment Clause by “promot[ing] a specific religion.”

Notably, before Shurtleff’s request, the city had never denied other groups’ requests to fly a flag, including the “Pride” flag, the flag of a local bank, a flag for emergency medical service workers, and many others.

The First Amendment’s protections regarding the right to speak and assemble vary based on the speakers’ chosen forum.

In its 1983 ruling, Perry Education Ass’n v. Perry Local Educators’ Ass’n, the high court divided forums into three types: traditional public forums, limited or designated public forums, and nonpublic or private forums.

The city acknowledged that by allowing the public to participate in flag-flying on the plaza, it had established a traditional “public forum.” In a traditional public forum, the government’s content-based restrictions on speech are considered highly suspect.

But, as Breyer wrote in Shurtleff, “the line between a forum for private expression and the government’s own speech is important, but not always clear.”

In assessing Shurtleff’s claim, Breyer wrote that when the government invites the public to participate in a program, the court has to look at particular “holistic” factors to determine whether the government intends to speak for itself, or to regulate another’s private expression.

These, Breyer wrote, were derived from the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision, Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, and included the history of the particular expression, the public’s perception as to who is speaking (the government or a private person), and the extent to which the government has actively shaped or controlled the message.

Breyer stated the record showed that Boston did not actively control the flag-raisings or shape the messages that the flags sent. In fact, the city had no written policy or guidance about what flags groups could fly and what those flags could communicate.

In addition, all flag-raisings had been approved prior to Shurtleff’s request in 2017. Therefore, the court held, the city’s refusal to let Shurtleff fly his flag was viewpoint discrimination and violated the Free Speech Clause.