Gordon asks about Confederate memorabilia removal on city property

2nd Ward Councilwoman Charlotte Gordon (left) asked if the city could ban Confederate symbols on city property, a move that City Solicitor John Haas (right) said needs to be checked for its legality. Photo by Patrick Keck.

PORTSMOUTH — Emblazoned on the top banner of the City of Portsmouth website is the motto “Where Southern Hospitality Begins,” perhaps signifying a connection with the city to the ways of the south.

2nd Ward Councilwoman Charlotte Gordon is looking into a way to prevent Portsmouth from being aligned with an undeniable, yet deeply polarizing part of the south’s history: The Confederacy.

Taking in concerns from her constituents and her own personal belief on that matter, Gordon sees the Confederate flag as an image that blights the city’s reputation. The flag has been visible to passersby along the riverfront, which has her asking whether council can prevent its presence and other Confederate paraphernalia on city property.

For a city trying to rebuild, attract tourism and students, Gordon believes the flag pushes away more than it pulls.

“I find it very offensive and they find it very offensive,” said Gordon, during the Nov. 23 City Managers session. “I feel like it’s city land, city property, and we should be able to have some sort of control if anybody is displaying anything really offensive.”

City Solicitor John Haas said he would need time to review the legality of such a measure, but sensed there could be challenges to the First Amendment. Based on what he had read about the presence of obscene signs, including the “No More B.S.” Pro-Trump spotted on Gallia Street storefronts, Haas thought it would be a real uphill battle for the city to enact any change.

“We could ban all flags maybe,” he said, describing the city’s policy with campers. “I just don’t know how you could pick which ones are offensive.”

“If we had that (Confederate symbols) on our flag or motto or seal, we could take that off. That would be no problem, but when you’re telling a citizen they can’t fly a certain flag or wear a certain shirt that’s when you run into First Amendment concerns.”

Having some familiarity with the city’s policy on obscenities, 5th Ward Councilman Edwin Martell cited Chapter 1308.08 of the Portsmouth Codified Ordinances, which describes what kinds of signs are prohibited.

This amendment dates back to 1977 and is applicable to all lots and lands within the city and does not allow signs that contain “statements, words or pictures of an obscene, indecent or immoral character, such as will offend public morals or decency,” among other preventions of limitations of traffic signs, those that use flame as a light source or are too big.

Haas said it was a possibility the ordinance was not constitutional, again iterating that he would have a look into the proposal’s legal merits. More discussion will follow at council’s next session Monday, Dec. 14.

Similar attempts were made in the Ohio House of Representatives this summer, where Rep. Juanita Brent, D-Cleveland Heights requested an amendment to House Bill 665 which would ban the sale, display, and distribution of Confederate memorabilia at the county and independent fairs. The Ohio State Fair instituted a ban on those materials in 2015.

The bill, titled the Ohio Fair Law, ultimately passed the House in a 62-25 but did not include the amendment. The House Agriculture and Rural Development Committee heard testimony from Brent, yet saw her proposal as detracting from the original purpose of the bill and a decision that should be made on the local level.

“We’re holding on to a flag that was never part of our state’s history,” she said during the committee’s June 10 session, denoting how Ohio fought for the Union and Rebel states like Georgia, South Carolina, and Alabama had already instituted bans of the memorabilia.

The amendment failed with nine noes to seven yeses with the 90th District’s Rep. Brian Baldridge, R-Winchester, joining the majority against it.

“The Confederate flag is a banner of white supremacy and a reminder of our nation’s original sin of slavery,” said Brent in a press release. ‘That Republicans in the Ohio House cannot bring themselves to vote to condemn and prohibit these displays of white supremacy and outright racism at our local and county exhibitions—the places where we go to celebrate the best of Ohio—is a real shame, and a black eye on this institution. If we don’t stand up to white supremacists, we stand with them.”

Reach Patrick Keck (740)-353-3501 ext. 1931, by email at pkeck@aimmediamidwest.com, or on Twitter @pkeckreporter.© 2020 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved.