Justia Summary

Boston’s City Hall Plaza has three flagpoles; one flies the American flag and another the state flag. The city’s flag usually flies from the third pole but groups may hold ceremonies on the plaza during which participants may hoist a flag of their choosing on the third pole. Over 12 years, Boston approved the raising of about 50 unique flags for 284 such ceremonies, most were other countries’ flags, but some were associated with groups or causes. In 2017, Camp Constitution asked to hold an event on the plaza to celebrate the civic and social contributions of the Christian community and to raise the “Christian flag.” Worried that flying a religious flag could violate the Establishment Clause, the city approved the event but told the group it could not raise its flag. The district court and First Circuit upheld that decision.

The Supreme Court reversed. Boston’s flag-raising program does not express government speech so Boston’s refusal to let Camp Constitution fly its flag violated the Free Speech Clause. Employing a “holistic inquiry,” the Court noted that the history of flag flying, particularly at the seat of government, supports Boston, but Boston did not shape or control the flags’ content and meaning and never intended to convey the messages on the flags as its own. The application process did not involve seeing flags before plaza events. The city’s practice was to approve flag raisings without exception. When the government does not speak for itself, it may not exclude private speech based on “religious viewpoint”; doing so “constitutes impermissible viewpoint discrimination.”