The Riverside Board of Trustees acted on Oct. 19 to tighten up rules regarding what kind of banners can be displayed in the village’s downtown parks following a kerfluffle in June surrounding the week-long display of a Gay Pride banner at Guthrie Park.
Trustees unanimously passed both an amendment to the village code and a policy document that lays out just who can and cannot display banners at Guthrie and Centennial parks in Riverside.
Under the new policy, the Gay Pride banner, which was sponsored by a local chapter of the group Action for a Better Tomorrow, would not be allowed. In June, village officials called allowing the banner an “oversight.”
The banner provoked a strong reaction by those objecting to the unspoken but clear message of the banner, which simply was a rainbow, during Gay Pride Week. The village police chief, who was serving as acting village manager during the manager’s vacation, received several angry phone calls demanding its removal.
After word of that reaction began filtering out into the community, others called village hall to express support for the banner. The banner eventually was taken down, not because of the backlash, as scheduled.
The village has two sets of metal poles for displaying banners, one at Centennial Park and one at Guthrie Park. The village displays village-sponsored events and notifications at Centennial Park. The display area at Guthrie Park is typically used by local nonprofits to announce special events.
The new village policy more explicitly defines what kinds of banners will be allowed in the future, ruling out any “banners that advocate, promote, debate, discuss or relate to any social issue, cause or event.”
The policy also makes clear that banners referencing political candidates or parties, referendum questions or partisan political issues are not permitted.
Presently, the banner application on Riverside’s website simply states that banners can be displayed by “village civic organizations.”
Trustee Doug Pollock suggested that the policy define the term “political issue” in order to avoid someone challenging village staff’s decision for approving a certain banner.
“I understand the trick bag we can get into if someone claims, ‘I’m not political. Who are you to say this is political?'” Pollock said.
Village President Ben Sells agreed with the village’s attorney, Michael Marrs, that it might be difficult to define what “political” meant, but suggested that if someone disagreed with staff’s ruling they could always appeal that decision to the village board.
“I think it’s one of those kind of things where you know it when you see it,” Sells said.
Marrs said the language of the new policy was meant to prevent displaying banners that could prove divisive. Trustee Scott Lumsden said he was on board with the new policy and the language regarding prohibiting political and social issue messages, because the village never intended for banners to stir public debate.
“This is not a forum for issues that are socially related,” Lumsden said. “This is an information board to promote community. You want to keep it that way.”
Nonprofit organizations that have been granted 501(c)(3) status are eligible to display banners as are local government entities, such as Riverside Township and local school districts and school-related organizations.
Banners are meant to communicate information about non-political events, like pancake breakfasts, arts events, public service messages and congratulatory announcements for groups like high school sports teams.
Applications are handled through the Riverside Public Works Department, but the new policy specifically states review and approval of applications will be handled by the village manager or the manager’s designee. It also recommends that banners not be manufactured until they are approved and that artwork and text that deviates from the banner application won’t be displayed.