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November 14, 2023

Federal court rules Montgomery County township can't ban display of 'thin blue line' flag on municipal property

U.S. District Judge Karen Marston decided Monday that Springfield Township's resolution barring the pro-police symbol is unconstitutional

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Thin Blue Line MaCabe Brown/Courier & Press / USA TODAY NETWORK

A Pennsylvania township's resolution to ban displays of the pro-police 'thin blue line' flag on government property was found unconstitutional by a federal judge on Monday. Above, the black and white American flag with a blue stripe is shown outside a home in Indiana in honor of a fallen police officer.

A battle in Springfield Township over the right to display a black and white American flag featuring a thin blue stripe in support of police was settled Monday by a federal judge. The resolution township commissioners had passed to prohibit the symbol's display on township property was found to be unconstitutional, ending a dispute that continued for more than two years in the Montgomery County community.

U.S. District Judge Karen Marston ruled that the prohibition of the flag's display — which some argued carries racist overtones — violated the First Amendment. Earlier this year, the township agreed to an injunction on the ban pending the resolution of the federal lawsuit filed by the Fraternal Order of Police Pennsylvania Lodge, the Springfield Township Police Benevolent Association and three police officers.

The disagreement began in 2021 when the police union in Springfield Township voted to incorporate the "thin blue line" design into its logo. Township commissioners and many in the community viewed the decision as a point of opposition to Black Lives Matter, the racial justice group that has mobilized against police brutality in the U.S. over the last decade.

Many police officers and others who publicly support law enforcement display the flag as a show of solidarity with police. The ban in Springfield Township did not apply to private citizens or organizations not operating on township property. The resolution prohibited the flag from being brought into township property or displayed on township vehicles. Employees, agents and consultants of the township also were barred from displaying the flag while on duty.

In an opinion published Monday, Marston said the township's position unlawfully restricted free speech.

“The Township repeatedly suggests that the Thin Blue Line American Flag is of limited, if any, public value or concern because it is ‘offensive’ and ‘racist,’” Marston wrote in the court opinion. "But as this Court previously told the Township, ‘the First Amendment protects speech even when it is considered “offensive.”'”

An attorney for the police officers in the case told the Associated Press his clients were vindicated by the judge's ruling, which he called "a resounding win for the First Amendment and free speech.”

In their lawsuit, the plaintiffs had called the township's resolution a "blatantly unconstitutional" measure that "defiles bedrock First Amendment principles."

The township's passage of the resolution in January came after considerable debate. The seven-member board of commissioners previously had voted against prohibition of the flag, calling its language too "vague." Prohibition eventually passed by a 5-2 vote following hours of public comment and meetings between the commissioners and the police union.

Last October, the township's lawyer and manager sent a cease-and-desist letter to the police union to have the symbol removed from the union's logo. The township claimed the logo stoked tensions between police and the community.

The flag has been described as representing a countermovement to Black Lives Matter. It has been flown at a wide range of political rallies, including campaign events for former President Donald Trump. It also appeared at the white supremacist rally that turned deadly in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. Some police officers later wore it as a face mask during the civil unrest that followed the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020. And it was displayed by some of the insurrectionists who participated in the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.

In many other instances, the flag has been used as a symbol of support for police officers killed in the line of duty.

Some Springfield Township commissioners acknowledged that the flag's meaning contains nuance, but the resolution's passage was partly based on the flag's controversial origins as an opposition response to racial justice movements in the U.S. 

In their lawsuit, the police union and its supporters argued that the flag represents a call for “the preservation of the rule of law" and "the protection of peace and freedom," as well as serving as a symbol honoring the sacrifices of fallen law enforcement officers. 

Marston noted in her ruling that the township's resolution had negatively impacted the morale of police officers, some of whom felt the measure painted them as racist. Marston also acknowledged that while the flag can signify racist viewpoints that offend some people, banning its display overstepped the township's legal authority to curtail free speech.