Although Meadville City Council learned nearly a year ago that its policy governing displays on public land is probably unconstitutional, the city is expected to address the issue today, just weeks before the beginning of another season of holiday displays.

The reason council took so long to act? The problem was forgotten.

Questions about the policy surfaced last December when a Tribune columnist questioned the legality of a nativity scene, or crèche, that has been erected in Diamond Park each holiday season for decades.

Comments, mainly supporting the nativity, circulated for weeks. When contacted, the American Civil Liberty Union’s state director said the scene is a legal expression of free speech, but if the city allows it, it must allow any display.

City Manager Joe Chriest said to post an unattended display on city property, a person or group has to fill out a no-cost permit with the city to describe its plans and intent. He uses “common decency” as the guiding principle on deciding what will or will not be allowed.

Chriest said the issue hasn’t come up before, and if someone wanted to place something he considers indecent on public land, he’d deny it and refer them to council if they want to appeal.

The ACLU said Meadville’s policy could leave the city open to a constitutional-rights lawsuit because it’s unwritten and leaves approval up to the city manager. For instance, if someone is denied permission to erect a display because Chriest feels it’s indecent, the applicant could claim the city violated his First Amendment rights and sue, the ACLU said.

Outside of obscenity as defined by the U.S. Supreme Court, the city can only limit “time, place and manner” of a display and the conditions must be in writing, the ACLU said.

Though all members of council have said they agree a written policy would be prudent, council hasn’t brought it up.

So Chriest said he plans to bring it up at a meeting today.

When asked this week why the formulation of a policy hasn’t been addressed, Mayor Richard Friedberg, who said in March that council should talk about it, said it slipped his mind. “I guess I forgot about it. It wasn’t intentional.”

Councilman LeRoy Stearns also said in March that he planned to raise the issue. Asked Tuesday why it hasn’t been discussed, he said, “I’ve got to be honest, it wasn’t on the radar scope. I had forgotten all about it until I saw it on there (the meeting agenda).”

Still, he said, “I think if we can clarify some kind of policy, that way everybody would be on the same page. It’s important to get it straightened out.”

Councilwoman Jean Jones has also said the city should decide what to do when a “controversial” display is suggested.

Councilmen Mike Jewell and Butch Kasbee have agreed there should be a written policy, but both also said a lawsuit is unlikely because the city wouldn’t deny display requests.

Chriest and Friedberg said a policy will be easy to put together. “I think if we talk about it Wednesday, I feel good we can get something in place before the season,” Friedberg said.

Chriest said if council decides to go ahead with a written policy, staff can write it up and have in place within a week. “That might take care of things,” he said.



Gary Johnson can be reached at 724-6370 or by e-mail at gjohnson@meadvilletribune.com

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