In a recent ruling, a federal court vindicated the public display of “thin blue line” flags — a symbol commonly associated with support for law enforcement — on the grounds of free speech, declaring the flags’ prohibition by Springfield Township, Pennsylvania, as unconstitutional.
The decision, handed down by U.S. District Judge Karen Marston on November 13, upholds the First Amendment rights of public employees, asserting that the ban infringed upon their freedom of speech.
The dispute in Springfield Township, located approximately 15 miles from Philadelphia, stemmed from the township’s contention that the use of the thin blue line flag, a black-and-white American flag with a blue stripe, was generating “discontent and distrust” within the community toward the police.
The flag has been a point of controversy in recent years, with progressive activists across the country calling for its removal due to its reflection of so-called “divisive” and “extremist” views.
However, Marston determined that the township failed to demonstrate tangible harm caused by the display of the flag and, therefore, the ban was an unjust restriction on 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 stated in the court opinion. “But as this Court previously told the Township, ‘the First Amendment protects speech even when it is considered “offensive.”’’”
Wally Zimolong, the attorney representing the police officers involved in the case, celebrated the court’s decision as a victory for the First Amendment and free speech.
“It showed once again that the government cannot engage in viewpoint discrimination based upon a message it disagrees with or finds offensive,” Zimolong remarked.
The conflict arose when the Springfield Township Police Department’s union, the Springfield Township Police Benevolent Association, voted in 2021 to incorporate the thin blue line flag into its logo.
Some township commissioners opposed this decision, associating the symbol with the “Blue Lives Matter” movement — a term used by police supporters in response to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Despite the township offering to cover the cost of designing a new logo without the flag, the union voted against changing it.
Tensions escalated in October 2022 when the township’s lawyer and manager issued a cease-and-desist letter to the union, asserting that the use of the flag in the union’s logo “unnecessarily exacerbates the ongoing conflict between police officers and the communities they serve.”
In response to the union’s refusal to drop the flag or change its name, the township implemented a policy barring employees, agents or consultants from displaying the flag while on duty or representing the township. The ban also extended to the display of the flag on personal property within township buildings or on township-owned property, including vehicles.
The police officers who initiated the lawsuit, alongside the statewide police union, argued that the flag symbolized support for law enforcement and various principles such as the preservation of the rule of law, protection of peace and freedom, the sacrifice of fallen officers and the dedication of law enforcement officials.
Although she denied a request to impose sanctions on the township and acknowledged that certain community members do perceive the flag as carrying racist undertones, Marston stated in her opinion that the township’s labeling of the flag as “racist” and “offensive” “at times borders on unprofessional.”
The judge also noted that morale within the police force seemed to have suffered “from the repeated assertions that the police officers — and not merely the Flag — are racist.”