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Is the side of Alaska Center for the Performing Arts a public forum? Black Lives Matter banner may have made it one, ombudsman says

A series of banners reading "Black Lives Matter" was posted at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts in September.
A series of banners reading "Black Lives Matter" was posted at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts in September.(Matt Leseman)
Published: Oct. 3, 2020 at 8:48 AM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Placing a banner reading “Black Lives Matter” outside the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts was problematic, according to the Municipality of Anchorage’s Ombudsman, Darrel Hess,

“It’s a slippery slope, when... you start selling space, you create a public forum on a public building,” Hess said.

The Ombudsman’s job is to investigate complaints about the municipality. While investigating a complaint about the sign, Hess sent an email to Anchorage Assembly members warning that by allowing a non-municipal banner unrelated to any shows inside the center, the Municipality may have turned the side of the building into a public forum. That would mean many groups would be able to post their own signage as well, and the city would be able to do relatively little to control it.

Hess compared the situation to one he ran into three years ago when he put some of his own YWCA “Stand against racism” signs up in the City Hall lobby. He was asked to take them down because the lobby wasn’t considered a public forum.

“If the Municipality turns a space into a public forum, then we can’t impose censorship,” he said. “So if we allowed my ‘stand against racism’ posters to be placed, and then the United Klans of America came to the Muni and said ‘we want to play some posters in the lobby of City Hall,’ we probably would have to allow them.”

Hess has since recommended the municipality review their banner policy and make it so only banners relating to PAC shows are allowed. He added that the legal team is working on that, but no changes have been announced.

“I think a lot of people don’t want to be sitting in town square park with their kids or their family or, you know, enjoying lunch and looking at political ads or our different social justice issues that they may or may not agree with,” he said.

But some groups have already started trying to get signs up there. Members of the local Facebook group Save Anchorage held a fundraiser Friday to get some banners of their own placed. Among them was Eagle River/Chugiak Assembly Member Jamie Allard.

“We would like to continue to put up our banner signs that say ‘support our veterans,’ support ‘blue lives matter.’ whatever’s important to our community,” Allard said. “We would like to continue those donations to support everything that’s going on in our community, especially the Muni issues.”

Allard added that the door had already been opened by the first banner being placed outside the PAC, and she was supportive of having a public space for discussions.

“That’s a city park, and that is a public forum, so if the PAC is willing to hang up any type of banner that helps the community come together and have discussions at the city park, I’m all about it,” she said.

As for the Alaska Black Caucus, which paid for the original banners, the President, Celeste Hodge Growden said the sign was always secondary to the goal, eliminating racism, and any changes to the policy are up to the city.

“That’s where our focus is right now. It’s on projects that move us toward that beloved community, not saying put on a banner,” she said.

Copyright 2020 KTUU. All rights reserved.

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